Everyone has different ideas about what kids should be doing in their after school and weekend hours. Some families have a different activity scheduled for each day of the week, while others may decide to limit activities to one or two days a week. How does one decide what is best? Occupational therapists are taught to analyze activities to assess what skills they will help the participant to develop. This is an important consideration, to be balanced with the main concern-what does the child enjoy doing?
Sports build physical skills while offering practical life lessons in sportsmanship, discipline, commitment, cooperation, competition and strategy development. Some will be team oriented, while others offer the child an opportunity to do her best for the sake of the challenge. Soccer, tee-ball, Little League, volleyball and basketball are all examples of sports that offer a team experience. Karate, dance class, horseback riding, or gymnastics offer a more individual experience. Swimming and tennis fall in the middle, as each child strives for a personal best, but may also be part of a team, or participate in team events. Likewise, gymnastics can be something a child would do for enjoyment or could be a highly competitive team sport.
All of these sports activities will help your child build strength, endurance, coordination and flexibility, but to assist you in deciding which one to choose, think about which skill the activity will primarily develop. If you feel that your child needs to build strength, karate, horseback riding, or gymnastics would be most appropriate. For endurance, sports that require constant motion, such as dance, basketball, soccer, tennis or bike riding would be best. To assist with eye-hand and eye-foot coordination pick soccer, basketball, tennis, or baseball. To focus on flexibility, try dance class or karate. Swimming builds both strength and endurance.
It is important to think about the level of competitiveness an activity offers. Children react differently to competition- some thrive on it and others find it threatening. If you feel that your child is too competitive, look for activities that require cooperation. Scouting, 4-H, playing in a musical ensemble, singing in a choir, or participating in community theater or community service work are all examples of cooperative experiences. Perhaps your child is shy about competitive situations and you would like to help her gain confidence. Swim team, karate, or any team sport would address the issue. On the other hand, for the child who is excessively shy, starting with an individual activity where the child has the chance to build skills without a competitive component might be more appropriate.
When considering sports leagues, check out the league carefully, attend some games and talk to parents whose children are in the league before signing your child up. There is a range of styles among local neighborhood leagues, ranging from extremely competitive and stressful to low-key and lots of fun. Be sure you know the style of the league you are considering.
Extra-curricular activities can also provide skill development that will support academic work. In general, the better your child understands and can control his or her body, the better. Being in good physical shape promotes attention and academic success. Taking singing lessons, learning to play an instrument, or playing in a musical ensemble will all help a child develop discipline, attention, auditory memory, and math skills. Ensemble work helps develop social skills and cooperation, playing a wind instrument will help build diaphragm strength and playing any instrument will help develop coordination and fine motor skills. Participation in theater will assist with attention, memory, and self-confidence. Theater is also a great way to help children understand different perspectives, which is something that can be especially difficult for children on the autism spectrum. Karate and dance classes will assist in development of sequential memory, which will assist with learning overall, and spatial awareness which assists in writing, doing math problems and understanding geometry.
For the older child, using extra-curricular time for volunteer activities offers an opportunity to glimpse the world of work and help your youngster investigate possible career paths. In many areas there are many opportunities for teens to volunteer for service-learning programs which helps them develop leadership skills. These hours sometimes count toward fulfillment of required service-learning hours for some county’s high schoolers.
One thing to consider is your child’s overall schedule in terms of a balance of activities which require focused attention (work), and activities which are more focused on creativity and exploration and less structured (play), and pursuits that may require some of each (leisure- such as hobbies). Kids need to have fun, they need to move, they need to have time with friends, and time alone. Some of their time should be structured and some should be left for reading, watching the clouds go by or inventing games and imagining things. As you consider various activities for your child, assess each for its potential to assist your child in developing specific skills while keeping in mind the value of balancing the time available to your child for work, play and leisure pursuits.
There are practical considerations too. Some activities require a large commitment of time, money for uniforms or costumes, or commuting large distances. Families with more than one child must balance the needs of each and consider the overall family schedule. If you will need to take younger children along when you take their older siblings to activities, will there be a suitable place for you to wait and will there be appropriate activities to occupy you both?
Good luck, and whatever you do, make sure your child is having fun!