Young ballerinas rehearsing in the ballet class; extracurricular activities for kids

Your Guide To Choosing Extracurricular Activities For Your Kids

Everything you needed to know about signing them up for their first one.

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Many parents are eager to get their kids to start extracurricular activities. I know that I personally couldn’t wait for the day I thought my toddler was ready to start doing some of her own — I was so excited when I finally signed her up for a toddler ballet class. Extracurricular activities have so many benefits: promoting socialization, teaching kids something new, and helping them learn how to work with a team, for starters. It’s easy to go overboard. But it can also be difficult to tell when kids should start extracurricular activities. Is there such a thing as too young, or is it better to get them going right away?

You don’t want to push your kids into something too soon, before they’re ready, only to scare them off completely. But you also don’t want to wait so long that your kids miss out on something important. So how do you know when to begin?

At what age should kids start extracurricular activities?

There is no set age for a kid to start extracurriculars — it really depends the personality of your child. That said, Randy McCoy, senior executive of product leadership at The Little Gym, tells Romper that, in general, 4 months is a good time to start a parent/child activity, while any time between 2 to 3 years is a good time to start them on something on their own. “Children at this age are establishing independence and developing an interest and abilities in social interaction,” McCoy says. “As most extracurricular activities will involve a social element, a 2- to 3-year-old child may experience many developmental benefits.

Still, pay attention to the cues from your little one. “Every child is unique,” says Emily Andrews, early childhood development specialist, M.S.E.d. of Here and Now Kids and contributor for Sawyer. She notes that you should consider whether your child is sufficiently independent, confident, and generally quick to jump in on things when thinking about extracurriculars.

Extracurricular activities for toddlers ages 2 and 3

Every child is different, developmentally and interest-wise. You might worry your toddler is too young to start swim lessons or not coordinated enough to join the local pee wee league, but if there is a local program, go for it. They might not master a specific physical skill, but there are benefits to being amongst their peers and learning how to work as a team. At the very least, you’ll get an idea of what your child isn’t into or ready for, and know what kinds of similar extracurriculars you should look for or avoid. For 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, here are some extracurricular programs that are likely available:

  • Movement classes: dance, ballet, tap, and more
  • Tumbling or gymnastics
  • Art classes exploring various mediums
  • Music lessons: voice or instrumental
  • Sports: skating, baseball, soccer, swimming, and more
  • Martial arts: Taekwondo, Karate, etc

How to know if your child is ready for extracurricular activities

Since the age of readiness really depends on the child, there are some other ways to tell if they’re ready or not.

  • McCoy says that if your kid is requesting or showing interest in a specific activity, this could be a sign they’re ready to be involved.
  • They should be “consistently exhibiting the ability to meet the typical physical, social, and emotional demands of a particular activity,” McCoy says. For example, following directions and functioning without you there.
  • They’re showing good social skills and are interested in playing with others.
  • They are always on the go, looking for something new to do.

How to find age-appropriate activities for children

Think your little one is ready? The most important thing to do is to sign them up for an activity that’s appropriate for their age. Putting them in something that is too young or too old for them won’t help them out and may only leave them frustrated.

Sometimes, finding an age-appropriate activity takes time. “Trial and error is fine,” Dr. Laurie Hollman, child psychoanalyst and child development expert, assures us. The key, though, is to not pressure your child and to just give them room to enjoy themselves.

Andrews recommends getting advice from other parents in your area, like friends and neighbors. “They may have some recommendations or may be looking for options themselves. Maybe there are similar interests among kids to give your children the option to join a class with someone they already know.”

Andrews also recommends asking your child’s teacher for recommendations, since they have a sense of what it’s like to work with your little one and have access to resources you don’t know about. Similarly, McCoy says that asking your child’s pediatrician is also a good idea.

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What to keep in mind when looking for extracurricular activities

Once you’ve found a few age-appropriate options for your little one, there are some other things to think about. First and foremost, make sure this is something you think your child will actually enjoy. “Sure, a lot of parents would love for their child to get a jump on a foreign language or start an instrument early, but if you have a sense that it may be a bit like pulling teeth to get them excited about going, you could hold off for the time being and focus on something they are actually interested in or passionate about,” Andrews says.

You should also remember to always keep the pressure off, and help them view this as something fun. “Younger kids will see this mostly as a social activity at first until they are capable of actual skill building,” Dr. Hollman says. “So fun is first. Pressure is never.”

Lastly, keep in mind that it might take some time before they get into it. “During the first few classes, your child may be a bit overwhelmed, shy, etc,” says McCoy. “Their participation level may be minimal at first, but hang in there! It can take a few weeks for a child to get comfortable. Parents should focus on being patient and supportive, not forceful, during this period to help their child adapt.”

How to keep kids interested in extracurriculars

Kids are funny: Even if they seem like they love their new sport or class at first, they might suddenly start acting like it’s a chore. Your job is to help keep them interested without being too pushy, and it really is a fine line. Doing something like signing them up with a friend is a good start.

One of the most important things is signing them up for something they actually like. “Take the time to learn and discover what your child is interested in and find activities that fit the bill!” McCoy says. “Encourage participation with love and support.”

You should encourage them to explore their new skill at home as well. “If they are taking a cooking class, let them watch some cooking shows with you in bed on a Sunday morning,” Andrews says. “Connect their new class to the real world.”

Taking interest in what they’re doing is super important here as well. “Take a genuine interest in your child’s participation in their activities and attend special events, performances, games, etc.” McCoy suggests. Ask them about what they learned and compliment them on specific things.

Lastly, never force participation. Making them seem like they have no choice in doing the activity will backfire. “Suggesting and encouraging is more effective than demanding or making some kind of arbitrary rule that ‘two activities a week are a must,’” says Dr. Hollman. Remember: no pressure.

How to tell if kids are overwhelmed by their activities

For kids, there is definitely too much of a good thing when it comes to extracurriculars. The last thing you want is to pile so much on their plate that they can’t function properly. The best way to tell if they’re feeling overwhelmed is to simply talk to them. “Regular, consistent and productive communication with your child will likely clue you in to how your child is feeling about their extracurricular activities,” McCoy says. “Ask questions — and listen.”

If your child doesn’t want to go to their activity one day, it might just be a fluke. But if they are consistently showing reluctance, McCoy says it could be a sign that they’re overwhelmed. Sometimes they might show that they’re doing too much by having trouble fulfilling other daily responsibilities, like doing homework or chores.

And, really, it comes down to paying attention to their behavior. “Just step back and take a good look at your child,” Andrews says. “Are they fighting you on everything? Are they collapsing when they finally get home? Do they beg for more down time?” If so, they’re probably doing too much.

How to know when it’s time to let them quit

There’s a good chance that, at some point, your child will want to stop doing their extracurricular. The only problem: it can be hard to tell if they actually want to quit, or if they just aren’t happy with one particular thing. When they’re talking about quitting, try talking to them honestly. “You should first do your best to find out why,” McCoy says. “Often times, the reason for wanting to quit can be easily remedied: taking the class at a different time of day — when the child isn’t too tired — or switching to a class with a different instructor, different mix of kids, different skill level, etc. If necessary, you should observe the class to better understand the problem.” Let your child feel heard.

While you shouldn’t allow them to quit the first time they mention it, it is something you should allow them to do if they truly seem unhappy. As Andrews says, you know your child best, so pay attention to their behavior. “You will know when to push and when to pull back and allow them to quit,” she says.

If they do decide they no longer want to take part in their activity, let it happen, and don’t be too hard on them or on you. “And by the way, why call it quitting?” Dr. Hollman says. “It's not a failure and needn't be perceived that way, which will only make kids reluctant to try more new stuff.” Quitting an extracurricular is not a sign that someone did something wrong — it just means it wasn’t right for them.

Sources interviewed:

Randy McCoy, senior executive of product leadership at The Little Gym

Emily Andrews, early childhood development specialist, M.S.E.d. of Here and Now Kids and contributor for Sawyer

Dr. Laurie Hollman, child psychoanalyst and child development expert

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