8 steps to choosing the best extracurricular activities for your child

Gaining clarity in choosing activities for my child

Every year we are faced with amazing opportunities for our kids: sports, theater, music classes, co-op classes, art programs and more. These opportunities can be awesome, but if you aren’t careful,  they can also take over your life!

How do you choose? I came up with a few ways to winnow our choices down to what would be best for each of our kids, and ideal for our family. These strategies served us well for years.

With 4 kids there was a constant tension between being involved in productive, fun activities and being over committed and stressed. Sure, we wanted our boys to be well rounded, have friends, explore interests, and have fun…but how to choose when there are so many really great options. With a few simple steps I’ll help you narrow down your list to a manageable, focused few.

Step 1: Recognize you can’t do it all.

Wait, stop, read that again…you can’t do it all. I often find I ignore the basic laws of nature. I think tomorrow I will have more hours in the day and I’ll get it all done. I bet you’ve been there too. Fact is, we all have multiple commitments; family, work, church and laundry. (Does anyone really keep up with the laundry?) Resources like time and money are limited, sad, but true. Be realistic.

Imagine a giant buffet. Everything looks good, parts truly amazing. Some of those dishes you could never pull off at home in your own kitchen. You begin to salivate. Then you are handed a plate. It’s a medium sized plate, not a platter, imaging you are holding a platter will not magically make your plate larger. Sorry. And, you are only allowed one trip through the buffet. I know, life (and a buffet) is not fair. You might try to pile food high, and likely,you’ll make a spectacle of yourself trying to get to your seat as food slides and spills. Or, reason prevails, and you scale back, recognizing the limits of your plate, you select the best the buffet has to offer.

Overindulging when it comes to a buffet might be embarrassing for a moment, but over committing your families time and money is serious business. Yes, it’s your job to provide quality enriching experiences for your child, but children only get one childhood. Protect it, because you can’t do it all!

Step 2: Don’t compare, really, stop it!

The dangers are real. Comparisons steal joy, instill insecurity and take on a life of their own.  Parents are especially vulnerable to the trap of comparison. Homeschool parents…well, multiply that by a zillion (in the words of my favorite preschooler).  Comparing yourself to that model family in your head, or your high school friend on Facebook, is a recipe for disaster.

Your family is unique, your child is unique.

Collect ideas, input, and advice from your friends and family. There is wisdom in that, but sift those ideas through your budget, your time constraints, your family make up. Avoid the trap of allowing comparisons to push you past healthy engagement to unhealthy ‘we can do it all’.  You’ll crash and burn and take your loved ones along with you.

Step 3: Know your parenting endgame.

Early in our homeschool journey I sat down and wrote out what I wanted our sons to ‘look like’ when they became adults. It was the most valuable exercise in parenting and homeschooling I ever did. (You can read what I came up with here.)

We gain clarity when we know what we are aiming for.  Having a clear picture of where you are headed can serve as a litmus test when it comes to making parenting choices. It’s a great early step in our decision making process to ask, does this activity reinforce our families values, does it move my children toward the adults I want them to be.

One of our goals was children who were active in the local church, so participation in church programs was a priority. There were times church schedules conflicted with sports schedules. In this case, we also valued the time our children spent in sports, but it fell a bit further down the scale. This made making the decision of which activity ‘won out’ easy.

Going back to our buffet example from above, keeping your endgame at the forefront of your decision making process allows you to easily eliminate much of what is on the table. With this one step you can narrow your choices down significantly.

Note: I’m not saying that your child will never participate in an activity just for the fun of it. On the contrary, protecting the fun in a child’s life is one of the jobs and joys of a parent. Providing opportunities to develop social skills and friendships is also a key responsibility of parents and a side benefit of many ‘just for fun’ choices. What I am saying is those commitments that eat up a significant amount of time, money and effort should be intentionally evaluated and assessed.

Step 4: Evaluate your family’s stage of life.

Are your kids in preschool… or high school? Do you have multiple ages? Did you just have a baby? Are you caring for a sick parent? The demands of family have an ebb and flow. I remember as a mom with 4 kids under 7 feeling like it took super human effort to get us all out the door with all of the gear we needed…the reality of life with little ones. When the boys were in high school I felt like a taxi driver. Every year of parenting brought changes and I had to stop, re-evaluate, and make adjustments. Parenting is all about growth and change, what was a perfect fit last year might be way to tight this year. Realize that family, by definition, is in flux and you are going to have to be flexible and make adjustments…all the time.

Step 5: Factor in your child’s age.

The younger your children are, the more carefully you should consider outside activities. Preschoolers should have hours of free play to build cities in the mud and curl up with books. Seven year olds should not have a schedule that rivals an overworked middle-aged executive. Children need time, time to be loved, time to explore, time to play. A hectic schedule robs them of some of these most precious years. There will be plenty of time later on to involve them in outside activities, they don’t need to ‘do it all’ in kindergarten.

High school students have a totally different set of needs. They are becoming independent, developing their own interest, spending more time with friends.  In high school my boys had pretty full schedules. Time with family and at church remained constant, but they were eager to expand their horizons. I found it healthy for them to develop varied interests and to keep their minds productively occupied.

Step 6: Ask, does this activity provide a skill or experience that your homeschool can’t provide.

I homeschooled our 4 sons from kindergarten through high school, I love homeschooling…but there are trade offs. There are school programs I can’t duplicate.  My boys wanted to play competitive sports. That’s a relatively easy gap to fill. With community and club sports readily available we could check that one off.

What things might YOUR child miss by not being in school? When your comparing and evaluating the vast array of extra activities you could choose, this question can point you in the right direction.

Step 7: On a related note, are their subjects you are not qualified to teach or are best learned in a group setting.

I truly believe that with all of the curriculum choices available to homeschool parents now, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can teach any subject you want on your own. The reality is, our resources are more wisely used by ‘outsourcing’ some of our children’s learning. For instance, I am not musical, all of my children are…so I paid for music lessons. All four of my sons play multiple instruments.  Over the years we spent a great deal of time, money and commuting to get our kids to music lessons, band practices, and gigs. It was totally worth adding lessons into our schedule.

I teach co-op classes for our school group. Generally these classes are chosen because they are in subjects parents either don’t feel qualified to teach, like Latin or Chemistry…or they are subjects that lend themselves well to a group setting like Shakespeare or Speech.

In these instances, opting to involve your children in an extra activity frees parents up to focus on teaching fewer subjects. Only you can decide if the trade offs that classes offer is the best choice for your family

Step 8: Will participation in this activity provide my child with a chance to make healthy friendships?

While I believe that the non-homeschooling world is far too concerned about the socialization of homeschooled students, we still want our children to interact with age-mates and make friends. In particular, children who are transferring from a traditional school setting to homeschool are concerned about when they will be able to see friends. Knowing that each week they will be in classes, sports, and activities where they will see other children makes them less resistant to the change, and provides times each week they know they will see their friends.

If your child struggles to connect with other kids in large social situations, like a church youth group or large class, finding them a group centered around a common interest can be a life line.

 To sum it up, we found that adding outside activities was a crucial and fun part of our homeschooling experience, adding a depth and breadth to our years that we would have missed without them. We also found that saying ‘yes’ to everything quickly led to frustration and stress.  Search for the balance that meets your families need and reevaluate regularly.

How do you decide which activities to participate in? Love to hear your thoughts!

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