‘Labors of Love’
“I enjoyed doing what I was doing, so I actually saw that time as leisure time,” Rentko, now a psychology major at Connecticut College, says. “A lot of these activities were with my best friends. We just really enjoyed being together, and I still consider them my best friends.”
The ‘peer factor’ is strong, and important. Extracurricular activities provide youth with regular, sustained contact with their peers, which helps them develop stronger relationships with each other, Fredricks argues. And kids benefit from friendships with other motivated, high achieving kids.
That certainly rings true for Steve Elci’s 11-year-old son Jordan. An extremely talented pitcher, Jordan plays in recreational and competitive travel leagues for both baseball and basketball, and also runs track in the fall.
“The same kids just kind of move from sport to sport,” Elci says. “He loves it, because he is with all of his best friends. They are almost like brothers.”
One popular argument from the kids-are-too-overscheduled camp is that kids join too many activities in an effort to boost resumes and secure admission tocollege. There is some truth to that, Fredricks says, but participating in a broad range of activities allows children and teens to explore a variety interests and exposes them to a wider network of peers.
“This breadth may be particularly important in early adolescence as youth attempt to establish their identities and find a peer group in which they belong,” Fredricks says.
And because different activities offer different developmental experiences, kids who participate in varied activities develop a wider range of skills, such as task persistence, self-motivation and teamwork.
“I’ve definitely changed and grown as a person,” Connie Ma, a senior at Norwich Free Academy high school in Norwich, Connecticut, says about her involvement in extracurricular activities.
Ma is the president of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, president of the Asian Cultures club, active in student government and a member of the Unified Activities Club, through which students with special needs are paired with peers for sports and other activities. She says that being involved in a wide variety of clubs and groups has expanded her social and ?support network.
“I get to interact with people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.”
Fredricks admits that there are individual differences and some children need more unstructured downtime than others. Her own sons differ with how scheduled they like to be; her oldest does a few choice activities a few times a week, while her younger son is more competitive, loves the team aspect of sports and participates more often. However, her research reveals that for every overscheduled kid, there are about a ?dozen who aren’t participating in anything at all.
This inactivity keeps Fredricks up at night.
“Schools have been so structured around standardized tests that they’ve been cutting music, art, school sports and anything seen as ‘extra,’” she says. “Middle class families can compensate with activities in their communities. But in many other communities, school-based activities are kids’ only options.”
Rather than focus on the potential consequences of high rates of participation for a small group of youth, Fredricks hopes more attention will be paid to the larger group that doesn’t participate at all. These youth are more likely to live in underserved communities with fewer school- and community-based resources to support extracurricular involvement, even though research shows they are likely to benefit the most.
With these benefits well documented, Fredricks hopes school districts and lawmakers alike will soon realize that students are likely to do better in school—and on standardized tests—if they have opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.
“Cutting those programs may be a short-sighted and misguided policy decision,” she says. “Many kids aren’t doing enough.”