Kicks or Keys

Children’s interests and activities are as diverse as the children themselves. Just as the right activity can build a child’s self-esteem and provide hours of enjoyment, the wrong one can do just the opposite. So, how do you find the right sport, club, or music program for your child?
This was the dilemma Mark and Susan Benzel were in when their children were younger. “My kids weren’t gregarious about asking to participate in an activity,” says Susan of her now 16-, 11-, and 10-year-olds. “We exposed them to a variety of things I thought would be developmentally good for them, hoping they would find something they enjoyed.” 

Kelli L. Ewing, LPC, explains that exposing children to a variety of activities is beneficial. “Parents should encourage their children to participate in a wide range of after-school or extracurricular activities. It serves to enhance childhood social skills, exposes them to diversity, and more importantly, functions as a wonderful way to utilize many different parts of their growing brains.”

While doing so, consider your child’s temperament. Although it is important for children to have a balance of active and quiet play, some children are more inclined to physical activities; others would prefer to exercise their minds.

This is the reason Frank and Betty Calvetti signed up their son for soccer when he was five years old. “Angelo has always had such a high energy level that we thought moving up and down the soccer field would be a good fit,” says Betty of her son. “We had considered baseball, but thought the game moved too slowly for him.”

Another consideration is your child’s personality. Is he more suited to group or individual activities? “Children who partake in both individual and group activities derive the best of both worlds with these kinds of play. Group activities encourage cohesiveness among its members, much like you might observe in the caring behaviors towards a child’s soccer or cheerleading team. Individual activities allow time for a clearing of the child’s mind. He can focus on his own creativity and have the space to expand on his own interests,” says Ewing.

Benzel found this to be true with her 10-year-old son Brock. “He always loved music and rhythm but had never had piano lessons,” she recalls. “One day, his friend came over and started playing our piano. Brock, who was eight at the time, said, ‘I can do even better.’ I started him in lessons and within months, he had surpassed his friend’s skills. I never have to ask him to practice. Lessons are the highlight of his week.” But Benzel admits lessons, practices, and commutes whittle away time, which is why she always considers time commitments before enrolling her children in activities.

“My life is one big jigsaw puzzle with work and family responsibilities,” she says. “I have to carefully place on the calendar where everyone is going and have an ‘a’ and ‘b’ plan in case my husband can’t help out.”

Equally important to time is finding an organization that matches your goals and objectives with regard to student-teacher ratios, instructors’ experience, teaching philosophies, and student expectations. Ask for recommendations from teachers or administrators at your child’s school, or talk with family and friends whose children are enrolled in activities if you aren’t familiar with local programs near you.

Calvetti found this approach helpful. “When Angelo was in the first grade, a friend told me about a chess club her son was in, so we decided to sign Angelo up for it,” she says. “It was a great program and a good experience for him. It taught him to lose graciously and persevere through a game.”

Experts agree perseverance is an important lesson children need to learn. For the Calvettis, it was worth repeating on a grander scale. “When he was seven, Angelo took an interest in the piano so we signed him up for lessons,” Calvetti remembers. “Two months into it, I realized he didn’t like playing, and we still had four months left on the contract. We wanted to see if we could move him past the learning curve and also felt the need to teach him the value of commitment, so we made him continue until the contract expired. He persevered to the end, but then he was ready to quit and try something new.”

Parents should explain the commitment to their child before enrolling him in a program so he knows what to expect. If the program doesn’t work out, talk with your child about the reasons it didn't work out to avoid them happening again.

Most importantly, view it as a learning experience, not a failure. Maybe athletics isn’t your child’s thing, but music is. Or maybe it’s art, science, cooking, or sewing. Don’t be surprised if it takes several tries–a few seasons or a couple years to figure out what interests him the most.

“My oldest daughter Meghan didn’t find something she truly adored until she was 16, and it’s volunteering,” Benzel concludes. “Even if my kids don’t ever find their niches, I’ll keep exposing them to different things so they grow up with a storehouse of experiences from which to draw from.” ■

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