Mark Twain was famously quoted as saying “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” At first blush, one could interpret that as an anti-classroom rhetoric, but what he really meant fell somewhere along the lines of understanding that there’s more to a well-rounded education then what can be taught in a classroom. In fact, one could argue that many of the “soft” skills associated with participation in extracurricular activities, such as time management and relationship building, are best achieved outside of a formal learning environment. “Since kids spend their day primarily sitting down and following a schedule at school, when they (leave school) it is important for them to have time to be creative, get moving and do something they enjoy,” Kristin Fitch, CEO and co-founder of ZiggityZoom says. In addition, there is a long-established relationship between participation in extracurricular programs and increased academic achievement, which is why almost every district offers some form of after-school activities for students to explore their interests. They range from sports to drama club to music to taking a deeper dive into a favorite subject (mathletes, anyone?), and everything in between, but ultimately serve the same purpose: to help our students to become more well-rounded individuals.

Although some parents may be dubious as to the true value of an extracurricular, outside of looking good on a college application (which, truly is a legitimate reason for participation in and of itself), the truth is that the value goes beyond filling a resume. As was previously mentioned, study after study has reaffirmed that participation in after-school activities results in better grades, better behavior in the classroom and better work habits, which are all necessary for success later in life. They also serve to help reinforce a student’s relationship to their school and community, resulting in a lower risk of dropping out. Some additional benefits include:

Goal Setting: Grades don’t exist in real life. You may get a review as an employee at a company, but nobody will ever hand you a piece of paper saying that you got an “A” in email composition. With that being said, you need to develop your own goals for where you want to be, whether that’s running an eight minute mile or being selected to lead a project. Similarly, extracurriculars put students in situations where they need to decide for themselves what they want to get out of the experience. By helping them learn to develop their own (sometimes intangible!) goals at an early age, students will be better equipped to continue the habit later in life.

Teamwork: Although many districts are moving to more collaborative learning models and team-based project, there is nothing that teaches the value of teamwork quite like being on a team. Almost all extracurriculars, be they drama, music, or an actual sports team involve working together to reach a common goal, and promote the development of the skills needed to do so successfully with a diverse group of people.

Time Management: The more you have to do, the more you’re inherently forced to get better at prioritizing tasks and commitments. The same holds true of students at any age – when they know they have soccer practice and a math assignment due tomorrow, they can’t watch three hours of their favorite show right after school. Successfully managing your time is quite possibly one of the best “life” skills that can be taught from extracurriculars and will continue to serve your student well past when the jersey has been retired.

Self-Discovery: Much as Twain indicated above, the subjects that will be learned in school are pretty much to be expected – math, science, language arts, and history, with a spattering of the arts and physical education. While the exact topics covered may vary from district to district, you can pretty much bet that your
student will be exposed to almost the same subjects as every other student across America. With extracurricular activities, however, students have the opportunity to discover things that they’re passionate about that they might not otherwise had exposure to.

Building Self-Esteem: People excel in different areas, and the classic school environment definitely isn’t for everyone. With that in mind, giving students the opportunity to find something that they’re naturally “good” at is an important element of their self-development. In addition, they provide a different environment to master new skills, something that students can take confidence from.

Academics: Okay, we know that we’re probably beating a dead horse here, but the importance of the role that extracurricular participation plays in academics cannot be overstated. Students who are involved in some form of extracurricular do better in school. Period.

Of course, as with anything, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Just as students can be under involved, packing their schedules full of activities that doesn’t leave any free time for play or rest can have an adverse affect on student’s general mental health and well-being. Balance is key – keep the dialogue open with your child to make sure that they’re participating in the activities that they’re truly interested in and that doesn’t leave them feeling stressed and frazzled.

In today’s day and age, the importance of after school activities goes beyond teaching valuable life skills. According to a recent Pew study, nine-in-ten parents report that their children ages 6 to 17 watch TV, movies or videos (on any device) on a typical day, and about eight-in-ten say their school-age children play video games. In a separate study conducted on children’s media use, the findings showed that teenagers spend an average of nine hours per day on media use (through TV, Internet, smartphones, and so on) for purposes other than school or homework, and that children ages 8 to 12 spend about six hours per day in these activities. Said differently, that means that today’s elementary kids are spending a QUARTER of their day browsing the internet, watching videos and sending snaps. And while there is some merit in developing technology literacy, the sheer volume of time dedicated to it vastly outweighs the accrued benefits. If a sport or club could reduce that time by just an hour a day, students would be better positioned for lifelong learning and healthy habits.

Recent studies have demonstrated that if a child isn’t involved in an extracurricular activity, after-school care can be just as beneficial to a child’s development when the alternative is being home alone in an unsupervised environment. In a national evaluation, over 40 percent of students attending 21st Century Community Learning Center programs improved their reading and math grades and those who attended more regularly were more likely to make academic gains, resulting in better performance over time. “These findings underscore the importance of high quality after-school programs and activities for both elementary and middle school youth,” explains Deborah Lowe Vandell, PhD, Chair of the Department of Education of the University of California at Irvine. At a high level, a high-quality after school care program can turn the aimless hours after school into a more productive time, resulting in better social skills, improved grades (as many programs offer homework help that the students aren’t always able to receive at home), and a safe environment to avoid risky behaviors – an element which is especially crucial for older students. In addition, however, after school care programs have a myriad of benefits, including:

Promoting a sense of belonging: If the program is run by the school, it gives students the opportunity to connect with familiar kids in a different environment, which can result in new friendships that may not have had the opportunity to blossom in the constructs of a classroom. Alternatively, if the program is run by the community, it promotes relationships of students within the same neighborhood that might not have otherwise existed, especially if students attend different schools. Either way, there is usually more adult supervision than on a school playground, which is beneficial for students with learning or attention issues.

Learning a healthy lifestyle: In one study conducted, findings indicated that afterschool programs has positive health outcomes including reduced obesity. This is due in large part to the fact that most programs include an emphasis on physical activity and good dietary habits. Many programs also include a healthy snack, which helps to establish important habits, like reaching for fruit over chips, that students may not be exposed to at home.

Provide safety and supervision: Sadly, research shows that the hours between 3 and 6pm are when kids are most likely to commit crimes, drink or use drugs or become the victims of crime. Making the situation worse, it is the students with learning and attention issues that are more likely to be victimized or engage in risky behavior. By keeping them busy during the witching hours, students are less likely to be exposed to situations that would be detrimental to their well-being.

Exposure to new interests: Many programs offer units or classes in areas like science and computers, two areas where students historically struggle. By presenting the information in an environment without the pressure of tests and where students are able to work collaboratively, they are more likely to be receptive to the information, providing the opportunity to discover a passion that previously might have been hidden behind anxiety about the subject matter. In addition, many programs offer arts and drama options which aren’t always included in the school day and give students the chance to explore something entirely new.

Bringing everyone up: Parents concerned about their children’s after school care miss an average of eight days of work per year, and this decreased worker productivity costs businesses up to $300 billion annually, according to one study. When parents are confident in the care that their student is receiving, this number dwindles, which benefits not only the families directly, but the larger community as a whole.

Overall, the existence and continuation of after school care programs as an alternative for students who are unable or uninterested to participate in extracurriculars is a crucial component of preparing them for success in the real world.

Of course, with young students especially, any participation in extracurriculars or after school programs is almost entirely dependent on a parent’s willingness to support the endeavor. Whether the contribution is monetary or simply the time spent arranging transportation, a parent will play some part in the child’s overall experience. Which begs the question, how engaged should parents be in extracurricular activities? And furthermore, how do schools communicate with parents about expectations? The latter is perhaps the most easily answered of the two. In a study conducted by The Massachusetts After-School Research program, the findings indicated that communication with families during pick-up and drop-off time was associated with more positive youth relations with afterschool program staff and better family and community support for the program. By explaining what happens during the after school program and garnering additional support from the parents, they were more likely to engage positively with the program. By extension, when a child knew that the program had their parent’s support, they were more likely to be receptive to the environment, and, ultimately, be more successful. Essentially, approval of the program is a largely symbiotic relationship. Therefore, it’s also key for the program itself to reinforce the positive benefits to the student during the duration of the activity. Emphasizing that positivity to the child through their stay, whether directly or indirectly, continues to support the students excitement and enthusiasm, which will carry over into their interactions with their families when they leave for the day. The families are then reminded of how beneficial the program is, prompting more good vibes all around.

This element of perception is true of all extracurricular activities. How involved a parent is perceived to be by a student is the single most important factor that will dictate whether or not a student has an enjoyable experience. This finding has been supported by research, which also indicates that a moderate level of involvement would be the optimum level of parental involvement. If you have a student in an extracurricular program, you’ve probably encountered a wide range of parents – from those who are convinced that their eight year old is going to play in the NBA (and treats him as such) to the parents that can barely remember when practices are and are forever arriving fifteen minutes late. Both ends of the spectrum carry their own set of challenges – from over involved parents placing too much pressure on their student to succeed, while under involved parents don’t provide the necessary support to facilitate the child’s on-going participation. By providing (what your child perceives) as a moderate level of engagement, students are still able to enjoy their involvement, while simultaneously challenging themselves to grow and improve.

If you’re finding yourself questioning where you fall on the involvement spectrum, the easiest way to ameliorate the issue is to have a discussion with your student about it. Despite the innumerable benefits of these programs, they will never be as successful as they could be if there isn’t an open dialogue at home about why your student involved in the program (do you want them to be a ballerina or do they want to be a ballerina?) and if they’re still enjoying it. Extracurricular activities and after school care programs are best facilitated by frequent communication – what your child wants to be doing, how involved they want you to be, and if they feel like they’re getting something out of the experience. When everyone is on the same page, everybody wins.