The Ongoing After School Activity Dilemma


With the new school year here I’ve been thinking a lot about after school activities and how to choose appropriate ones for Henry. He’s at an age where he’s interested in a lot of different things: animals, engineering, tennis, soccer, karate, art.  I want to let him explore all those options while the passion for learning and discovery is still there. Six is such a fun, exciting age!  I remember when Henry was 2 or 3 his doctor told us at that age to pick activities for our kids that are enjoyable for the parent, since it doesn’t really matter at 2 or 3 what kinds of things they do- music class, gymnastics, drawing class. It’s all just a way for them to learn how to interact with others and the world around them and get the parents out of the house so they don’t go nuts with a toddler.  Now though, as a 6 yr old there’s so much more to consider when choosing an after school activity…


Images of Henry by Rachel Thurston 

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1. Time and money. This of course is probably the biggest one. There’s nothing more frustrating that watching your grumpy kid sit on the edge of the pool, refusing to get in during the lesson you’re paying good money for. Especially when you drove clear across town, had to wake up your baby from her nap to get there and lost your temper in the car when they spilled the pretzels all over the backseat. For the LOVE, people.

2. Is this a real interest of theirs? Sometimes Henry will talk about wanting to take karate lessons and then I start researching classes, reading reviews, asking friends, and later find out it’s just because he likes the idea of wearing a uniform and belt. DONE! Here’s an apron to karate chop around in the kitchen! Sometimes what I’ve found helpful is to see if they continually ask about something over a period of a few weeks. Is it something they’re thinking a lot about or just a fleeting interest?

3. Afraid of failure. Let me clarify, my fear of his failure! There are some inexpensive parks and rec classes we’ve taken before that have ended up as complete flops because the instruction was poor or inappropriate for his age or ability and then it would turn him off from the subject completely. I don’t want the story to be “I hated art from the time I was 6 years old when my art teacher told me my watercoloring skills were terrible”. Yikes!

4. Falling behind peers. I know this seems kind of competitive minivan-driving soccer mom of me, but when I grew up the only soccer classes we had in our town were on Sundays. And on Sundays our family did not participate in sports or classes; it was a day for worship and family time. Unfortunately, this meant that by the time we were in middle school and soccer was offered on other days of the week, we were far behind our peers in soccer skills so we couldn’t play at all. I don’t even care about competitively falling behind, I mean just feeling left out and not being able to play something when they’re a little older.

5. Fear of overscheduling and spoiling. This has been a big one for me because for a long time Henry was an only child and it was such a struggle to not spoil him. Just because you have time to schedule their days, doesn’t mean you should I guess? This was news to me until recently! There has been lots of literature lately on the harms of overscheduling your kids. It’s a tricky balance though between boredom and being overscheduled. Nothing’s worse than a nagging, bored 6 yr old bouncing off the walls in your home demanding screen time and cheetos…except for a tired, disinterested, overscheduled 6 yr old (at least…I think that’s worse? I’m not sure!). What we’ve done the last few years has been to pick one sport a season, and one other activity. For us, that’s been: gymnastics + swim (age 4), soccer + swim (age 5), and this year will be soccer + art (age 6). It’s impossible though to figure out the balance. I like what Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Pressured Child says: “As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood,” he said. “And nobody knows where that line is.” Great NYT article about it here.


6. What are his friends doing? Maybe this is another that seems silly, but things are always more fun with friends. This summer we signed up for a camp and made the mistake of not finding a friend to do it with. It was a really unstructured kind of set up and what a mistake that was for him not to have a friend! He sat in the ‘quiet room’ most of the day, feeling shy and lonely. A little intimidated by the older kids. I think finding a friend to do things with is especially true in younger grades and/or when your kid is starting a new school and you want to create as many opportunities as possible for them to make and keep friends outside of the structured nature of school.

7. Getting the most of out of it. Okay, so this plays into issue #1 but part of me would rather pay for the more expensive lessons, all the way across the bridge in Marin if I know the instruction is stellar. If Michael Jordan’s sweet, encouraging, super fun twin of an instructor is offering basketball lessons an hour away, sign me up!


I’d love to hear your thoughts for both parents and from your experiences growing up. How do you decide what after school activities to sign your kids up for? What are some of the things you struggle with in making those decisions? 


Last year, I signed my 5-year-old up for a Parks and Rec soccer class. She seemed to enjoy it the first week, but the coach was pretty stern, and by the 5th lesson, she was an absolute mess and refused to go. After that, I discussed it with her and we decided that because I signed her up for it without asking her first, she could quit. Then, together, we made the decision that if I sign her up and pay for something, and she agrees to it, she has to stick with it, at least until the session is over. Since then, it has made a world of difference. During the summer, she did swimming lessons, and two camps that she really wanted. Now she does gymnastics one afternoon a week, and an after school science class that is being offered at her school once a week. I love having the other days free after school because it gives us room to have play dates and field trips.

Interesting topic- I feel like it’s a tricky balance too. I love giving them opportunities but don’t like the feeling over spoiling

I agree, it’s so hard. Growing up we could do one activity a season and even then my parents were driving us 4 kids around all day! crazy how schedules take over daily life

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