The school year is off to a start and along with that, the abundance of extracurricular activities. Sure, they are important for college applicants hoping to prove they’re well-rounded candidates with a life beyond academics. But the pressure to sign your kids up for numerous sports and clubs has now extended to an even younger age. Before your children (and you!) get burned out from over scheduling, stop and think carefully about which afterschool programs you select.

We asked several NJ experts for their advice on picking the right activities for your child, so you don’t waste time or money. Here are their top suggestions:

Extracurricular Activities

1. Consider your child’s age.

Younger children can try different activities, within reason, but teens should zero in on what’s most interesting to them. “Extracurricular activities are an important part of your teen’s college application—they show who a student is outside of the classroom,” says Marisa Sandora, college essay consultant at The Essay Specialist in Ridgewood. “But colleges look for quality over quantity and would rather admit applicants who have dedicated time and effort to excel in a few areas than those who list tons of activities that they haven’t demonstrated a real passion for.”

In fact, some experts say it’s better for your child to eventually become a specialist. “If your child wants to focus on one topic, all the time, I say go for it,” says Eva Glasrud, a college counselor and life coach who works with New Jersey students. “Some people will spend a lifetime looking for their passion. If your kid’s got something they’re passionate about now, the best thing you can do is nurture that.”

2. Recognize a child’s natural abilities.

If your son shows a knack for drawing and your daughter can throw a ball, then steer them into extracurricular activities that will help them develop those talents, suggests Linda Whitehead, PhD and senior adviser for Education and Development at Bright Horizons Children’s Centers LLC, which has 50 centers throughout the state. You can also have them try new activities outside their comfort zone when they are still young. This will help them adapt when things are challenging and discover if there’s something else that might appeal to them. You never know when a hidden talent might surface.

Extracurricular Activities

3.  Encourage your child to give activities a fair shake.

Many kids decide they don’t like an activity and want to quit. “Whether or not your child suggested an activity or you did, you should encourage them to honor the commitment they made to the instructor, team, classmates or themselves,” says Hilary Levey Friedman, author of “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture,” the research for which was conducted at New Jersey’s Princeton University. “After that time has ended, then you can reassess.”

4. Consult teachers for their advice.

Your child’s teacher can offer some insight into the world of activities available and how you might be able to maximize results. Remember, students with special needs can benefit even more from these extracurricular activities. “A lot of times, if they pick the right extracurricular activity, their disability could shrink away,” says Angela Adams, a special education teacher for pre-K children at Winslow Township School 2. “A lot of research and dedication must be done on the part of the parent.”

Extracurricular Activities 5. Ask the right questions of your child.

Some kids just follow their friends into an activity. Try encouraging your child to reflect on his or her personal preferences instead. “Ask your children about their likes and dislikes,” says Adams. “Present them with a broad range of activities and ask them what they enjoy and desire. Listen to their dreams–about what they hope to do and be in the future–and intertwine that with the activity that would best suit them.”


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