Extracurricular Activities: Benefits and Balance

With in-person school back up and running again, so too are many sports, academic groups, and clubs — often referred to as extracurricular activities.  For teens, getting back into the classroom, completing their schoolwork, and catching up with friends, comes with the  added option to participate in extracurricular activities. These activities come in a variety of forms including sports teams, academic or arts clubs, and volunteering or working in the community. As a researcher, I often write about the science and studies surrounding the benefits of extracurricular activities, but I also wanted to capture what matters to parents and their teens. So I checked in with two of my colleagues, Eden Pontz and Jacques Louis, who have high school-aged teens of their own for a bit more perspective. Read on to find out more about the benefits of extracurricular activities, balancing those benefits with their drawbacks, and how parents can use these activities as a way to relate to their teens! 

Benefits of Participating in Extracurricular Activities

Participating in extracurricular activities can benefit your teen in a lot of ways. Here are (sometimes surprising) examples of some key benefits. 

Improve Academic Abilities:

Teens who participate in school-based activities (for example, sports, academic clubs, or theatre) are more likely to engage in school and to graduate from high school. They may also have better attendance and standardized test scores. Not sure where to start? Participating on speech and debate teams helps teens develop research, communication and critical thinking skills. Similarly, participating in theatre can improve reading comprehension– including youth who have learning disabilities. Teens who get involved with music education may find they’re improving their math skills! 

Expand Possibilities for Identity Development:

Adolescence is a time when youth are rapidly exploring and developing their identities. Participating in a variety of activities throughout adolescence exposes them to different types of people with a range of interests. This exposure to new experiences and people can help teens find answers to big questions such as “What do I like to do?”, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” Being part of a club, team, or group gives teens an opportunity to form positive connections with peers and other supportive adults

Bolster Personal Growth:

Extracurricular participation may also help young people feel more empowered and increase their self-esteem. These benefits may even extend beyond high school! Participating on sports teams not only provides a way for teens to connect with peers and positive adult role models (e.g., coaches), but it is a way for teens to experience social acceptance and body satisfaction. Research shows that the combination of these benefits from playing sports in high school may reduce risk for depression and boost mental health in early adulthood

Cultivate Character Development:

Tweens and teens who take part in activities may gain positive social skills. For example, by providing youth with things to do and a space to do them they develop positive relationships with adults and other teens, and are less likely to bully others. Theatre participation may help young people develop empathy as they portray how their character thinks, feels, and behaves. (As a bonus for caregivers, watching those live theatre performances may also increase empathy by allowing audience members to imagine themselves in the life stories of the characters!) Participating in a variety of activities during high school may even lead some kids to be more actively involved in their communities throughout adulthood.

Build Relationships:  

Having a range of activities provides unique opportunities  for teens to form and strengthen relationships with their peers and their parents. Extracurricular activities also provide a way for teens with similar interests to connect to each other. Research reveals that teens who participate in an activity together are almost 2-3 times more likely to form new friendships with one another than with someone who does not participate in the same activity. This same study also showed that teens who participated in activities together were more likely to maintain their friendships than teens who did not participate together. In other words, these activities are a great way for teens to form new friendships and maintain old ones!

In addition to building peer relationships, extracurriculars also provide a way for parents to connect to their teens! Not only can parents talk with their teens about what they like and dislike, they can also use them as a springboard to discuss deeper issues. Jacques uses his sons’ activities as a backdrop for critical conversations with his sons about colorism, class, privilege and empathy. For example, Jacques asks his sons “What does privilege, empathy look like [in this setting]?” Click here for more tips on how to encourage your teen to talk. 

Part-time Work and Volunteering

Volunteering is another way for adolescents to learn skills and develop positive characteristics while giving back to their communities. Beyond just feeling good when they help others, volunteering can also increase self-esteem, self efficacy, and contribute to better mental health and greater satisfaction with life. Volunteering is a great way to meet new people, and can help teens develop empathy for those who are different from themselves. Teens who volunteer are also more likely to graduate from high school

Some teens may have summer jobs, or even work part-time during the school year.  Just like involvement in different sports or clubs, having a job is another way for teens to interact with new people and develop skills. Part-time work may help teens become more effective at interacting with adults and allow them to develop professional and personal skills as they transition into adulthood. For Jacques’ teenage sons, part-time work has been a way for them to learn “work-ready marketable skills [such as] getting up early and having to go to work at a specific time, and [learn about] performance reviews.” Similarly, Eden said that holding a part-time job at a restaurant gave her daughter a chance to “really interact with adults – not just young people.” Another benefit Eden added was that it gives teens “exposure to how businesses work.” Both parents said that part-time jobs were a great way to help teens learn financial literacy (e.g., learning to budget and save). Part-time work can also contribute to adolescent character development. For example, research shows that adolescents view their part-time jobs as a way to help others. This is important because the positive feelings associated with helping others show teens that work can be more than about a paycheck! 

However, just like with sports and clubs, holding a job part-time takes time. Working too many hours may lead teens to have lower expectations about finishing school, be less engaged in their schoolwork, struggle to pay attention in class, or use substances. These are some of the reasons why it’s important for caregivers to talk to adolescents about balance.  

Balancing Extracurricular Activities with Life

Beyond the personal, social, and academic benefits of extracurricular activities, some teens may see participation in a wide range of activities  as critical for getting into a good college. They may be tempted to take on a lot of activities to impress an admissions committee. It’s up to caregivers, parents, and teachers to remind teens that being overwhelmed is not healthy, emotionally or physically. Stress can damage grades, decrease motivation in school, and increase the chance that a teen turns to substances.  While college admissions committees may appreciate an applicant’s hard work, they also recognize that teens need to eat, sleep, and remain physically and emotionally healthy.  For more suggestions on how to choose activities, check out these tips from the Princeton Review.

As caregivers, we have our own opinions about which activities teens should pursue. Some parents may want their children to choose an activity because they’d done it themselves when they were younger. Other times, parents might want to take their child out of an activity due to concerns about safety or the amount of time required. While these concerns may be very real, it is important to remember that there are risks and benefits with every activity. Given that participation increases positive characteristics such as school engagement and confidence, there may be unintended consequences of taking teens out of an activity they enjoy, such as decreased enthusiasm for school or lower self-esteem. 

Another concern that parents and teens might have is the amount of time an activity requires. Commutes, practices and meets consume hours in teens’ (and often parents’!) schedules. For Eden’s daughter, the opportunity to take a once-weekly course for college credit directly conflicted with soccer practice and meets. Eden explained, “We talked to her about it, to say, ‘Let’s take a look at the full landscape…maybe you can play pickup soccer on the side.” In this case, the tradeoff proved beneficial: “She made the decision, and now as a result of her taking that class, she thinks that’s an area she might want to study in college.” 

Is it Okay to Quit an Activity?

With all of the options available for extracurriculars, it may be difficult to figure out which ones to pursue and which ones to drop. Both parents emphasized that it is critical to consider whether their teen is enjoying their choices. When deciding on whether to continue an activity or not, Eden reminds her daughter that extracurriculars are a way to “figure out things you like and you don’t like.” Sometimes determining whether an activity is enjoyable takes time, so Eden also encourages her daughter to “give it a try at the beginning, and don’t give up right away.” Similarly, Jacques makes sure to check-in with his sons, asking “Are you happy”? And if the answer is “no” then “we’re done.” Conversations such as these help teens develop their own voice. When you listen to your teens’ concerns, you empower your teen, and give them the chance to strengthen their decision-making skills. Here are some more ways you and your teen can make decisions together.

Discoveries Made Through Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are a great way for teens to learn about themselves. Participating in a variety of activities can help youth discover where they fit in, what they like, and what they do not. They can help teens develop critical skills as they transition to adulthood. Two-way discussions between parents and teens are critical to ensuring that the benefits of participation outweigh any risks, and a great way for caregivers to have conversations about difficult topics. 

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About Ettya Fremont

Ettya Fremont, PhD, MPP, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is interested in positive youth development, specifically for youth with special health care needs, and adolescent moral development.

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