Pick the perfect extracurricular activities

Leslie Foster lists the most important factors to consider when it comes to finding the right programs for your child this fall.

a girl sits on a splits

If you have children, the end of summer signals the start of school and the race to register for extracurricular activities. Each family is unique and will evaluate choices based on their particular circumstances.

Here are some considerations when choosing extracurricular activities for your child.

Assess the benefits 

Sports provide an outlet after being in school all day.  It is recommended that kids aged 5-17 get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. “If active healthy living is instilled at a young age, the chances of being physically active and healthy in later life are greater,” says Kellie Hinnells, executive director at the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre.

Jennifer Cowie Bonne, CEO at Active Healthy Kids Canada, says sports-based activities can also play a key role in helping kids to develop ‘physical literacy,’ which is defined by Canadian Sport for Life as the skills, confidence, and motivation to enjoy a variety of sports and physical activities throughout their lives.

Studies have proven that children exposed to the arts become stronger students in all of their school subjects.

 “As schools reduce their arts education due to budgetary cutbacks, it is vitally important that kids still have access to the arts, whether it be visual, music, dance, creative writing, or theatre,” says Sharon Diamond, development and special events officer at the Council for the Arts in Ottawa. 

The arts also represent a different outlet for expression, she adds.

Other programs like Sea Cadets, Girl Guides, and Scouts represent opportunities to try a variety of activities. Jeff Woznow, president of the Navy League of Canada (Ottawa branch) suggests that diversity of activities is also an important consideration.

“Through the Sea Cadet program, youth will become involved in a wide variety of activities such as, sports, sailing and other forms of seamanship, music, marching and parades, target shooting, as well as an array of purely social events.”

Interest and quality of program 

Try and choose an activity you think your child will enjoy. If they are old enough, let them be part of the decision-making process. You may have to narrow down the selection for younger children.

Attend a session for free or at a reduced fee to try it out. Make sure there is a good instructor/coach-to-child ratio, and that staff is friendly, enthusiastic, and qualified.

The space should be clean, safe, and spacious enough for the activity. There should be enough equipment and supplies for everyone. Children should look happy and engaged. 

Discuss any special requirements your child might have and enquire as to how staff would address them. Evaluate the age appropriateness of the activity. Assess the level of competitiveness and skill required.

Time commitment

Evaluate how the schedule will fit into your family life: early/late, seasonal/year-round. How much of your time is required for travel to and from the activity? Will you have to contribute volunteer hours? Are there out-of-town tournaments?

Don’t over-program. A demanding schedule can be stressful on a child, which may translate to behavioural problems. Extracurricular activities should not interfere with school work, time spent with family, or sleep. Children require sufficient alone time to unwind and time to play and move on their own terms.


Some activities, like Sea Cadets, have no cost to join. Others have significant registration fees, uniforms to purchase, and required equipment that can add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

If you select a competitive sport, be sure to account for tournament costs and travel. For arts-based programs, like dance and music, there could be examination fees. Think about the long-term costs – can you stick with it for multiple children/years?

Activities should engage your child. Perhaps they will develop a new skill. Maybe they’ll even discover a passion. 

Keep your expectations realistic and age-appropriate. Don’t force an activity on your child because it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do, or something that you did as a child.  Allow them to try a few different types of activities and eventually, you will find the right combination that really works for your child and your family.