Child’s Play

After-school programs give kids a safe place to exercise their brains – and their bodies – while having fun

When I was a kid, I had a few after-school activities available to me: Girl Scouts, high school track, summer camp…and not much more than that. But today, the possibilities for children can be overwhelming. Depending on where you live, you could choose anything from soccer to computers, equestrian to baton twirling, taekwondo to pottery making.

How do you even begin to choose? As you browse through all the websites, sift through the brochures, talk with your spouse and children, and consider these questions: What are my goals for this activity? What do you hope your children/family will gain from them? What skills will this activity teach my children? Perhaps you want your children to make new friends, get exercise, and learn how to work hard physically, or explore a potential talent. Whatever your goal, let that direct your selection process.

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Once you have an activity in mind, take stock of the skills it could teach your children. Different activities tend to teach different skills—from teamwork to responsibility to creativity. Now it’s time to look honestly at an activity and consider the time commitment and cost it entails. Is your family ready for the cost and time the activity requires? Can I put all (or at least more than one) of my children in this activity?

During their early years I really wanted to give each of my four children the perfect opportunity to explore their gifts. I wanted each to pursue whatever activity their particular interests inspired. So I signed Mimi up for ballet and Brian for baseball, put Jane in soccer and took Dennis to karate. It was a nice idea but before long I was going crazy driving all over Saigon accommodating four different schedules! The hectic pace made our family feel scattered and stressed. So I drastically reduced. We decided all the kids would swim on a year-round team and play in music class. It was such a relief to have our schedules aligns, and our kids enjoyed being in a larger team together. I know many families want to let their children do many different activities in hopes of giving them every advantage in life, but I don’t like to watch a parent become exhausted from running her kids to and from… and ultimately feel like she has to give up on extracurricular activities because they have too much on their plate. In my particulate situation, it worked beautifully (for the kids and me) for us to condense our activities. Would something similar work for you?

The Company You Keep

As we all know, coaches can have significance influences on children. Do I like the coach/leader and the other families in this activity? What is the coach like? Do you respect their teaching and character? Also, I hesitate to include this because I don’t want to over generalize or imply that you should only interact with families just like yours but I would encourage you to consider the types of families you’d interact with in a given activity. Would you enjoy their company? Would you children benefit from spending time with them? My kids participated in swimming and band while they were young, and then soccer and music in their high school years. At least where we lived, the families and children involved in these activities tended to be hard-working and encouraging. They were just the types of people I wanted to influence my own children.

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Of course I would also encourage you to involve your children in the decision. If they really want to try a particular activity, consider giving it a trial run. Or maybe give them a way to show you they’re serious. If your daughter is begging for piano lessons, for example, you might work out an agreement that she can start lessons if she practices 10 minutes a day for the next month. Then agree you’ll re-assess after three months of lessons. Who knows? Maybe your children really will fall in love with music, art, dance or whatever it is they keep asking (nagging) for.

How can I help my kids explore their talent? Do you suspect that you have a budding artist, public speaker or dancer in your house? Perhaps a trial run of a certain activity will help you find out. There are many schools and centers in the city who offer trial runs, it may not be posted on their website but it doesn’t hurt ask. Or perhaps there are other ways to encourage these interests. From the moment he knew it was possible, Brian loved to make films. Jane is a natural artist who constantly created with her hands. When we discovered these interests, my husband and I helped Brian nurture his gifts and purchased amateur equipment for his birthday. Whenever an art course came up within our schedule, we signed Jane up. The projects she created in these classes were the foundation of her art school portfolio. That portfolio provided her with both entrance to her school and a scholarship to attend. Brian went on to study film making in college, and now produces films as part of his full-time work. They both developed skills that will give them a venue for expression (and, hopefully, income) their entire lives.

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