The Romans had a saying – Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body. And they practiced what they preached. In ancient Rome and Greece, it was expected that students not only give their all in philosophy and mathematics; they were similarly required to practice gymnastics – what we would now call “athletics”.
Nowadays, we tend to have a different view of what’s necessary for an adolescent. We often expect them to figure out their own particular interest or vocation and to channel their energies exclusively into that one thing.
However, attitudes are changing. We’re beginning to acknowledge that adolescents need more than one narrow focus and we’re encouraging their participation in extracurricular activities. And that’s a good start towards fostering a multi-oriented young person with a wide variety of interests and skills.
Unfortunately, society dictates a lot of the choices adolescents have. There are certain labels that, once established, can be very difficult to shake off. We have “jocks”, “nerds”, “cheerleaders”, etc., – and their peers (and adults alike) tend to see them as one-dimensional. For that reason, “nerds” will go for chess club rather than trying out for the football team where they might not be easily accepted. But why shouldn’t a young person who has both the interest and skills go out for both – as unlikely a combination as that might appear to some? It’s up to us to encourage them and teach them that it’s okay to do well academically and be a good athlete at the same time. Not only is it okay, it’s very good for both their mental and physical well-being!
So, how do we recognize which extracurricular activity is right for a particular adolescent?
Here’s some questions whose answers might offer a solution to that dilemma
1. What is your child interested in?
Even though adolescents spend a lot of time with their friends, parents have obviously been with them far longer. They’ve watched them grow up, playing with the same toys for hours and begging for that soccer ball until they finally got it. You are clearly the ones who can best try to answer this question – what is it that always interested my child? Sometimes, girls will be interested in new technologies and dream of becoming a programmer or a game developer. But once they enter high school, they’re told that it’s a man’s field and they might be encouraged to go for soft skills instead. The same goes for boys and, say, dancing. But if these kids had spent years practicing different programming languages or dancing in their room, you should talk to them about it and try to convince them to pursue their passion by joining a computer club or a dance troupe. Just make sure to be as objective as possible. Try to remember those early occasions when your child asked you for something, not when you bought it for them without asking first. It’s important (and not always easy) to distinguish between your child’s and your own interests, as parents often see themselves reflected in their children.
Extracurricular activities shouldn’t be there to fill in their free time with just anything – they should offer children a unique chance to develop, to find something they are passionate about and, who knows, maybe make a living out of one day. Adolescents who work at something they’re interested in and motivated by tend to have more success in that field than their peers, as well as being happier and more fulfilled. 
2. What are they good at?
Another important thing to consider is not only what children like, but also what they seem to be talented at. If they choose to engage in activities they already have a gift for, it will significantly elevate their fragile self-esteem.  Adolescence is a time when it’s important to develop a sense of self and confidence, and for most, years will pass before they master this. So being very good at something and having the opportunity to prove oneself might be extremely beneficial. That being said, the chosen activity should still be sufficiently challenging – they might not enjoy “easy wins”.
Now, if what interests them and what they are good at are one and the same, they’ll have the perfect extracurricular activity. But what if it’s not one and the same? What comes first? Should they choose what interests them or what they’re good at?
Well, there’s no reason to choose. There’s nothing wrong with participating in several organized activities in one’s free time. And when they’re involved in more than one extracurricular activity, adolescents tend to like school more and do better academically than their peers who only follow one. 
3. Do they enjoy socializing or are they shy?
So far I’ve been arguing that extracurricular activities should be tailored to the child’s interests, but there’s definitely more to it. Different activities offer different possibilities, and if they choose the right one, children can develop all sorts of skills. For example, if an adolescent prefers doing things alone – not because they are shy, but because it’s simply their preference – joining a math club or chess club may be the right thing to do. However, if you’ve noticed that your child wants to socialize but feels too shy to attempt it, a team sport could help them enormously. Of course, it might be difficult in the beginning. Trying new things usually is. But as time goes by, spending hours of their free time in a structured environment with their peers learning responsibilities and team spirit will start reaping benefits, and you’ll soon see them turn from shy to sociable.
4. What are their priorities?
It’s good to encourage adolescents to try many different things. But occasionally, you’ll find children who’ve been obsessed with a only one activity since their earliest years. They may see themselves only as dancers, or actors, or game developers, and they focus all their efforts on becoming better at that one particular thing. In that case, it’s okay to remind them there are other activities out there, not just drama or computer club. It is up to them to decide whether they’ll give them a try or not, though. If they identify strongly with the activity they’ve chosen, they might see other activities as a waste of the time they’d rather be spending practicing what they enjoy most.  However, bear in mind there are certain caveats here. If their action-of-choice is a physical thing, such as football or dancing, go for it! But if the activity they’ve chosen is sedentary, it might affect their physical and mental health negatively. Since most school activities are done while sitting down, going to a computer club just to sit some more could carry certain health risks. This is why it would be good to encourage them to practice a variety of extracurricular activities. 
Mixing it is best!
Adolescents need to be stimulated both in terms of learning and physical development. Their brains and bodies alike are undergoing a lot of changes that are sometimes confusing and not easily understood. It definitely helps if they can hold on to something throughout these changes.
School tends to focus on academic achievement, be it through math, languages, or science. That’s far from a bad thing, but it’s not enough for a developing young person. And even though they have the opportunity to practice PE, its benefits are easily diminished by the overwhelming amount of time spent sitting, studying, and doing homework. So, if your child wants to only do things related to athletics outside of their school time, it’s okay. School will deal with their knowledge and learning habits, and athletics will help with that, too. Children who engage in physical activities such as sports or dance have shown greater liking for school and enhanced learning ability, probably because physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, making it more active and alert, which positively influences their attention. 
What are their choices?
Up until now, I’ve been separating extracurricular activities only into academic and athletic, but there are at least two more types of activities a child might want to try – performance arts and prosocial activities. If they are interested in performance arts, they might want to join a school band or a drama club, for example. The children who will go for these are usually those who enjoy being in front of the audience, but shy children can benefit from participation as well; performing is good practice for the future, as they may one day be required to give a speech or hold a presentation. And there’s the added benefit of the built-in socializing factor that goes along with it. Just keep in mind that it’s up to you to encourage your child to try something, but in the end it’s up to them whether they feel comfortable enough to do it.
Finally, we have the so-called prosocial activities – the one most commonly practiced being volunteering. This one is very important, as doing something for the community helps an adolescent feel more a part of things and gives them a sense of belonging. Not only that, they become part of a social network of both peers and adults who could potentially give them useful advice and teach them new things.
The important thing is that all of these activities have a lot of pros – they all lead to better grades and a higher college attendance, while prosocial activities and performing arts also help prevent potentially risky behaviors. Now, I’ve mentioned previously something along the lines of “the more, the merrier”- but there’s a limit to that. So where do we draw the line? At what point do we tell them they’re putting too much pressure on themselves? How many activities are enough and how many are too much?
Magical number 5-19
Different cultures have different expectations for their children. In Europe, students are expected to have high grades, while volunteering is looked upon as a plus. Anything above that is a bonus, but not necessary for success. In many countries in Asia, they have a different outlook. From a very early age, children take on piano lessons, English classes, swimming, baseball, art… And that’s just for one child. Children who have too many responsibilities and too little free time growing up tend to be very stressed-out, not only as adolescents but also later in life. However, children who have few commitments and challenges during their school days also tend to be under a lot of stress once they get a job and responsibilities, since they’re not used to the pressure and not well equipped to deal with it. So what’s the solution? Moderation. Children whose parents’ expectations for them are moderate tend to go on to lead more fulfilling, healthy lives while still managing to succeed in their chosen area.
But what exactly constitutes “moderate”?
It’s been shown that adolescents who spend between five and nineteen hours a week doing extracurricular activities are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Anything above nineteen hours has either no effect or a negative one, as it leads to adolescents being under too much pressure and resorting to risky behaviors to try to find a way out of anxiety or depression. 
So, what can we conclude?
Encourage your children to try different things. If they are shy, a performance art might help them. If they feel like what they love doesn’t fit their perceived role in society, urge them not to give up on their passion. If they are only interested in academic or prosocial activities, help them fit a physical activity into their schedule. If you’re not sure what they are interested in, feel free to recommend them one you’re interested in or have experience with, as long as you don’t push it on them. It will give you some extra time with your teen that they might otherwise prefer to spend with their peers.
And last, but not least – don’t let them over-commit themselves. They still need some unstructured, free time with their peers or alone.
by Jelena Jegdić
- Eccles, J.S. (2003). Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Journal of social issues, Vol. 59, No. 4, 2003, pp. 856-889
- Holland, A. & Andre, T. (1987). The Effects of Participation in Extracurricular Activities in Secondary School: What Is Known, What Needs To Be Known
- Farb, A.F., Matjasko, J. (2005). The role of school-based extracurricular activities in adolescent development. Review of educational research.
- Biddle, S. J. H., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: A review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 886-895 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2011-090185