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Extra-Curricular Need Not Mean Extra Challenge

By Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C.Psych

It is that time of year that parents tends to celebrate while your children tend to dread. Their endless days of freedom and unstructured summer fun are over and the most structured time of the year emerges. School has started and with that comes a return of the most structured time of the year. Your children return to school for a full day of learning, playing, socializing, and growing all within a timeframe of eight structured hours. They then return from school, perhaps do some variation of homework, an activity, and then it is time for bedtime routines. September brings about the start of the most structured season and with that comes decisions about which extra-curricular activities your children may be involved with. Selecting after school activities can sometimes feel like a headache, especially if you have more than one child or work constraints inhibiting your ability to get to the activities on time. Despite the experience feeling like a potential headache and challenge, it does not need to be that way.

A scary part of the process is that it starts half-way through the summer. Yes, you are looking into Fall programming in late July and early August. As odd as that may sound, the early planning can prevent stress on yourselves and the family as a whole. Moreover, knowing which activities your children will be involved with will also help them prepare for what is coming in the months ahead. The more awareness of what is coming, the easier it is for them to both mentally and physically prepare themselves. Living in Canada seems to generate a false birthright that all children must skate and play hockey. However, when it comes to extra-curricular activities there are hundreds of options and it is important to start brainstorming early and as a family which may be best fit.

When selecting activities, the cost adds up very quickly and no, the children do not need to participate in every single option out there. Sometimes, I think extra-curricular activities become a full-time job and school is used to rest and recover before the next activity starts. However, the truth is, enrolling your children in activities is essential for their growth, learning, socializing skills, and an expansion of their physical and mental health skills. Knowing that there can be limitations, start with safety. One of the most important skills to learn in life is knowing how to swim. Being in the water can be dangerous at times as I am sure you had seen throughout the summer. If your child is going to do anything, at the very least ensure that they have basic swimming skills so they can be more confident in the water, around water; limiting the potential for panic if challenges arise. Moreover, swimming helps stretch and strengthen all muscle groups, especially their back muscles and based on how much time they spend on computers, those back muscles need work.

The next thing to consider when thinking about extra-curricular enrollment is the idea of a team. The psychological skills that strengthened with those who are part of a team include enhancement of communication, socialization, working toward common goals, resolving conflicts, and confidence building. It was always very clear to me the children that played team sports or were involved in music and dance that were team oriented compared to those that did not. It was clear that they acted in ways that were best for the group as a whole and if their priority was to act for themselves, the cohesiveness of the team dissolved. The strengths that can emerge from being part of a team do not just benefit your child now, but even more so later in life. Working as a team through hard work, committing to goals as a team within the family, and accepting that when one person struggles, the whole unit struggles are all foundational aspects to your children's success. You win together and lose together and learn how to do both gracefully as a team. Without that opportunity, many children do not naturally develop the skills needed to overcome loss gracefully and celebrate wins humbly. When selecting an after school activity, consider the value of a team or a group (e.g., soccer, dance, or scouts) and the season long commitment to goals as a unit. Although the routine use of social skills are slowly fading (as I have discussed many times before) being involved in a routine activity that involves others aiming for a similar unified goal can only enhance social connectedness.

Finally, although taking on a new activity can generate a breadth of Anxiety for both parents and children, it may be important to consider enrolling your child in a new activity that they or their friends are not as familiar with. Trying a new activity (although Anxiety provoking at first for many) can help your child overcome some of the fear of the unknown, work through the challenge of learning a new skill, and perhaps create a new interest that will help them flourish and increase their confidence in a whole new area in life. I recall one of the athletes I worked with who was an avid opera singer first before athletics or one of the dancers that spent time learning a new language when they were unable to enroll in an activity they initially sought out. If we rely too much on the same activities from year to year, we could be limiting the growth and the potential interests that our children could flourish with. As the school year gets rolling, prevent the unnecessary challenges of extra-curricular activities. Preplan the activities and openly discuss with your children which interests they have. Consider life skill development, team building, and widening the breadth of their interests to help setup a successful year.

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