After-School Activities

What Does the Research Say?

When it comes to the world of after-school activities—and how to help your kid get the most out of them—parents often feel like they have more questions than answers.

Luckily, the answers are out there, because we’ve been able to study these activities to determine what works!

Before coming to Legends, I led an in-house research team at the Boy Scouts. When I was getting my PhD at Tufts’ Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, I worked with youth development programs around the country from 4-H to West Point to measure their effectiveness.

So if you’re looking for concrete answers on the most common questions parents have about after-school activities, look no further.

Is there a “right” number of after-school activities for my kid to be doing?

I’m actually going to give you a number!

Research from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development—conducted with thousands of youth over 10 years in 42 states—identified the different ways that kids were involved in after-school programs, and how that participation was associated with their development and mental health.

They found that kids who participated in multiple out-of-school activities tended to have higher scores across several indicators of positive youth development (PYD): the Five Cs of PYD (competence, confidence, character, connection, caring) and contribution (leadership, service, helping, ideology).

Yet, despite those high PYD and contribution scores, they also found that the group of kids who were really highly engaged (who did a little bit of everything) had higher levels of depression than any other participation group. You never want your kid to feel overloaded. After all, research also shows that it’s really important for kids to have unstructured time, which can especially help their confidence.

Of course, every kid is different! The indicators of positive development and depression for each group were averages, which means your kid might be able to handle more (or fewer!) activities than other kids their age. The best thing you can do is talk with your child and make sure they don’t feel too overwhelmed or too bored.

If your kid is participating in afterschool clubs, organized sports, youth development activities, performing arts, and volunteering, then it’s probably worth checking in that they don’t feel spread too thin. Likewise, if they are active in none of those categories, or even just one, then maybe it’s time to see if we can explore a few new interests!

But I promised you a number… so I’ll point out that the participation profile with the highest levels of positive youth development and contribution, but without elevated levels of depression, was the one where kids did two specific types of activities: a youth development activity and a sport. For a lot of kids, this is a great starting point for their out-of-school time activities. Can you find a character-focused youth development program (like Scouts or 4-H, or, hey, Legends!) to pair with an organized sport?

Again, this is also an average, so if your kid really dislikes sports, that’s OK. Let them sit those activities out! But for most kids, this tends to be an effective combination and a good starting point for helping them to maximize their development without overwhelming them.

Some activities are better than others, right?

The research on after-school programs is pretty clear about what makes something effective. In the youth development research field, we call it “The Big Three”:

  • The first is positive and sustained relationships between an adult and youth. Does your child seem to like and trust their coach or instructor? Is this a program where instructors tend to stick around, where your child might get to work with the same adult consistently? Is there an adult in the program that your child knows believes in them?

  • The second is a skill-building curriculum. This is generally the easiest to find, since most activities—from art to soccer—are trying to teach kids something.

  • And the final one is opportunities for leadership or responsibility. This is the ability to do things like: be a Team Captain, do an Eagle Scout project, or take turns leading warm-ups in an acting class. If you’re vetting programs or coaches, consider asking “how do you give kids opportunities to take leadership and responsibility” or “how can my kid put those skills that they’re learning into practice in a way that is meaningful to them?”

What do I do when my kid wants to quit? Let them quit, or push them to stick it out?

There’s a reason this is a tough question! Research suggests that if a kid doesn’t really want to be part of an activity, even if they show up, they won’t get the benefits. In one study, researchers even tried to see if paying kids who were considering quitting would help them stick with an after-school activity. Kids got less engaged.

So there really isn’t an upside to making a kid “stick it out” at an activity they hate. At the same time, no one wants their kid to quit something they love on an impulse.

The first thing I would try to do is troubleshoot. What’s the problem that’s making your child feel disengaged?

One reason children may become bored or frustrated with an activity is that it doesn't align well with their skill level: it may be too easy, offering no challenge, or conversely, too difficult. Ensuring that kids are appropriately challenged enhances their engagement in activities. Parents can address this issue by discussing it with coaches or instructors, or by brainstorming with their child to find ways to adjust the difficulty level of the activity.

Another thing that really affects kids’ engagement in an activity is whether they feel a sense of belonging. Can you help them connect with other kids in the program, like inviting over one of their soccer teammates after practice? Programs where kids have good relationships and feel a sense of belonging tend to incorporate at least some unstructured time to let kids just connect, so you can ask the coach or instructor if that’s happening, or if it’s possible.

The next thing I’d suggest is to try and alter the intensity of an activity. Maybe your child likes piano but going every week is a lot, so scaling lessons back to once a month might work better. Or maybe they’ve just played through a tough set of playoffs, and taking a season off from sports—rather than quitting—is really what they need. Sometimes kids feel they want to quit when what they really might need is a break.

If those things aren’t working, then what you could do is make a plan. Give yourselves a timeline: two weeks, a month, the end of the season. Decide on a few things you both will do to try and improve the situation in that time. If things aren’t moving in the right direction, then you both agree that quitting is the right solution.

If you’ve taken all those steps together and your child still wants to quit, that means it’s time.

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