The idea that extracurricular activities can be good for your teen is probably old news to most parents. The benefits youth derive from participating in afterschool activities have been well established. They include learned responsibility, engagement in self-discovery, formation of important social connections, practice with decision making, development of crucial personal skills, improvements in academic achievement and enhanced self-esteem and resiliency.
There are many reasons that out-of-school activities provide such a wide range of benefits for young people. To begin with, the hours immediately following school release are known to provide the highest “risk” or likelihood of teen engagement in negative activities. Extracurricular offerings can fill up some of this unsupervised time. An added bonus is that adults or older teen role models, who can serve as positive examples for youth, generally lead extracurricular activities. Additionally, as teens become increasingly more independent, extracurricular activities can serve as a safe space for them to test out new skills and explore their own interests.
But are all activities created equal? Naturally, researchers and parents alike have become increasingly more interested in understanding which kinds of activities are most beneficial to youth.
- Generally speaking, structured activities have been shown to have much greater benefits for teens than unstructured activities. Structured activities are monitored by an adult, have a regular planned meeting time and specific goals that are both developmentally appropriate and challenging for youth (e.g., a school club or community program). This contrasts with unstructured activities, such as meeting up with friends to shoot hoops, which are much more informal and less likely to include supervision or defined objectives.
- There has been some concern that too many activities can actually be harmful for youth either academically (by taking time away from studying) or psychologically (by causing anxiety or stress from too many commitments). While some research has shown that youth participating in out of school activities more than 15 hours per week do report slightly greater anxiety, the majority of research does not support the overscheduling myth. In fact, most youth report participating on average in 2-3 activities for roughly 5-10 hours a week – well under the 15 hour threshold.
- One exception to overscheduling may be for youth involved in sports, particularly as teams become more rigorous and demanding of your teen’s time throughout the high school years. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether your teen will need to balance a heavier-than-average schedule will vary greatly on the type of commitment they have. For example, if your teen has an early morning practice before school, agreeing on a reasonable bedtime can be a priority. On the other hand, if your child is mostly busy after school, scheduling time on off-days or in the evenings for homework can help your teen remember what they need to get done and be prepared to leave this time for other school related tasks. Finally, a heavy schedule may call for continuous reassessment of whether the schedule is working. Maybe two sports is too much and your teen should stick with one, or, maybe the combination of some afterschool clubs will be more manageable than others based on time requirements (e.g., a yearbook club may have some “busy” times, but for the majority of the school year leave plenty of time to try other clubs simultaneously).
- Other than the importance of an activity being structured and supervised, there is little consensus as to whether any one type of activity is better than another (e.g., sports over debate team). More important is a teen’s active choice and commitment when taking on activities, and a parent’s involvement in both assisting with the logistics of this choice and the monitoring of how the experience is impacting their child over time.
The 5 Extra Considerations for Extracurricular Activities
Every teen’s level of involvement and need for extracurricular activities is unique. Finding activities and schedules that fit both your child’s interests and abilities, as well as a schedule that works for the whole family is essential. Below are some important things to keep in mind over the middle and high school years as your child’s options and interest in extracurricular involvement expands.
- Identify the short and long term goals.
Short term goals: What is your teen interested in getting out of a new activity? Is there a new skill or talent they want to explore? Do they want to spend time with friends and need an opportunity to do so? Are they exploring potential career options or skills? Do they want to further develop a skill they already possess?
Long term goals: Is there an activity that may benefit your child’s life long development and learning? Are there activities that might enhance their college or employment resume or help them to explore career possibilities? Student council or debate team can provide them with excellent interpersonal and public speaking skill building opportunities. They might even find that they are interested in a career in law or politics. Sports involvement can provide youth with the interest and skills to support lifetime fitness.
- Explore Interests and Skills.
If your teen is interested in learning something new or enhancing a skill they already have, they might seek activities that focus specifically on the desired skill or interest. Having a goal in mind can help narrow where to look. For example, if your child wants to learn photography, they could look for a school club, such as yearbook, that incorporates this skill. The teen years often are a time when individuals are open to learning from and sharing their new-found passions with one another. This is also a time of life when your young person may have the chance to participate in opportunities that may not be as available later in life, such as playing on a traveling soccer team, backpacking in remote areas, or acting in a musical theater production.
- Participate in the choice of participating.
Finding extracurricular activities that are a good fit for your teen can take time. As a parent, you play an important role in this process.Talk with your teen about what they hope to get out of the experience, what might be the pros and cons of various activities, and how much time commitment they feel comfortable taking on. This could be an excellent opportunity to help your child identify skills they may not be aware that they have and to remind them of how much potential you see in their abilities. Teens sometimes need help envisioning the possibilities and matching their skills and interests to specific opportunities. For example, you could mention that movie your teen and his friends made on your iPad was very creative, and suggest finding a film or video gaming design club.
- Be realistic about time.
Extracurricular activities are just that – “extra.” Despite all their benefits, they should not interfere with other important things your child needs (e.g., sleep). Begin the conversation about activities with an idea of how much your teen can realistically take on. Then sift through the options and find something that works for everyone (including adults who may be carpooling!). Keep in mind that your teen’s schedule of activities should not completely take over your needs or overshadow the needs of the family as a whole.
- Get the info.
Many clubs or activities have certain requirements that could potentially influence whether your child is able to participate. It is important to find out what is required in terms of time commitment, cost and potential safety issues. Don’t let yourself be pushed into an activity that you do not feel is in the best interest of your child or your family. If the hockey team only practices on Sunday evenings and that is family time for you, then consider finding another similar sport like field hockey or roller hockey. If the weekly horse back riding lessons are too expensive, then maybe a week of summer horse camp or an opportunity for your child to work off part of the cost cleaning the barn is more realistic.
Extracurricular activities have consistently been shown to positively impact adolescent development. It is important, however, to consider your child’s capabilities, needs, and interests, as well as your family’s ability to make participating possible when deciding which activities, and in what capacity, will be the best fit for your teen.
What was your favorite extracurricular activity from your teen years? Do you see the connection from what you learned there in your adult life?
Article by Dayana Kupisk
Dayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.