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4 tips for choosing the right after-school activities for your kids

Deadlines to register for after-school activities are cropping up across the country, offering a palpable sign that back-to-school looms in the not-so-distant future.

Parenting experts offer advice on how to choose extra-curricular activities that let kids thrive

Kids need to focus on having fun — not going pro, experts say. (Romrodphoto/Shutterstock)

Deadlines for after-school activities are cropping up across the country, signaling that back-to-school looms in the not-so-distant future.

From soccer to singing, parents have plenty of programs to choose from that can offer their children physical, social and mental stimulation.

Here are four tips for how to choose the right kinds of activities.

1.Talk to your kids

Experts recommend parents' first course of action should be to speak with their kids about what kinds of activities they want to sign up for.

"I really recommend doing it very collaboratively," said psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang, author of The Dolphin parent: A guide to raising healthy, happy, and self-motivated kids.

Kang says families may value different types of activities, like arts or team sports, but it's generally a good idea to start with an open-ended discussion.

Some after-school activities that teach key life skills may be non-negotiable for some families. (Associated Press)

Harvey Eng, a supervisor at Vancouver's Strathcona Community Centre with more than 30 years of recreation experience, says satisfaction is the key to long-term success.

"The most important thing is not to push your kid into something they don't want to do," Eng said. "I think that makes for a very tough opportunity to have any sort of fun or success."

Kang warns that doesn't mean parents should only register their kids in programs they want or enjoy — some activities, like swimming, may offer important skills that may be non-negotiable.

In those cases, she recommends laying down the rationale behind those programs and offering an example of how the newly-acquired skill might be useful in the future — like at a family holiday at the lake.

"Even little kids can tap into that," she said.

2.Keep the 'extra' in 'extra-curricular'

As important and beneficial as after-school programs may be, experts say it's important to remember they aren't meant to take away from other core activities.

"There are a lot of developmental benefits that can emanate from organized sport participation," said Martin Camiré, health sciences professor with the University of Ottawa.

"But I think it's important … for parents to understand these activities must be secondary to school."

Parenting experts recommend prioritizing important activities like homework and family-bonding time before after-school activities. (KaliAntye/Shutterstock)

Camiré says it's just as important to "let kids be kids" every once in a while, even if it means letting them veg out on the couch for a bit when they get home.

Both he and Kang agree that many kids these days are so over-programmed they don't have enough time to do their homework and get enough sleep.

Kang suggests first scheduling sleep and family bonding activities, like having dinner together. Once those have been scheduled, parents should plan time for homework. Then they can consider extra-curricular pursuits.

3.Find the right fit for your kid — and your family

Parents have their own schedules to consider as well as their kids'. Rushing around the city to drop kids off at rec centres at different times of the day isn't possible for everyone.

Kang says some families may want to consider whether or not their kids should be in after-school activities at all. Growing up, she was never enrolled in any programs after school — and she still made it to Harvard.

Similarly, Eng says parents shouldn't put their child in a class just because the time works better for their schedule.

Put your kids in the right activity level, experts say, instead of the one that fits best with your schedule. (Denis Farrell/Associated Press)

He also cautions parents against letting their expectations of their children's abilities cloud their judgement.

"[Rec staff] try to stream kids into the proper level so that they'll get satisfaction out of the program," he said. "Parents need to be OK with kids not being at the top level or having to move around ... to the right level."

4.Don't force it if they want to drop out

There will likely come a time when a child's enthusiasm for an after-school activity will wane.

Camiré says kids can change their minds fairly quickly, and it may just be a general lack of interest.

"If that is the case, then as parents it's important to let the kids sample different sports in order to ultimately, when they get older, start specializing in the sport they like the most," he said.

It's natural for kids to lose interest in some activities. Experts recommend letting children try out different programs until they find one that sticks.

For non-negotiable activities, Kang recommends parents offer, "an environment of encouragement and support."

She also suggests parents be flexible and allow their kids a day off here and there. Also, she says, a small incentive can go a long way. 

But for ultimate motivational power, parents may have no further to look than themselves.

"One of the biggest predictors of child sport participation is the physical activity levels of parents," said Camiré.

There's no better way to motivate your kids than to show them how it's done, parenting experts say. (The Associated Press)


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