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Vol. 11 #2 Children and Extra-Curricular Activities

Children and Extra-Curricular Activities

Micheline S. Malow, PhD

Manhattanville College

The research is clear; organized, structured activities such as sports, engagement in the arts, or academic enrichment, provide children with enriching social, cognitive and personal opportunities.Specifically, a growing body of research finds that children’s participation in structured activities after the school day has ended is associated with both academic achievement and well-being (Simpkins, Ripke, Huston, & Eccles, 2005; Muschamp, Bullock, Ridge, & Wikeley, 2009). Extra-curricular activities can be organized in multiple ways. For example, they can be provided after-school in the school setting, extending the child’s participation at school beyond the customary academics, or they can be provided in community settings. Whichever way extra-curricular activities are presented, organizing the out-of-school time of children is a way to provide exposure to activities not directly taught in the classroom, as well as a way to give parents opportunities to manage their children’s free time in ways that they see as valuable.

Children and Free Time

When examining children’s spontaneous engagement in free time activities, such as spending time with family, friends, or alone, there is little difference between economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged families (Muschamp, et al., 2009). Everyday activities like shopping, spending time caring for others, watching television, playing on a computer, reading, or just hanging out predominate amongst both groups.

However, when it comes to planning for how to manage children’s out of school time, parents have options, although the number of choices depends on where the family resides, such as rural or urban areas, and whether the family is economically advantaged or disadvantaged. Although options may exist, Larson and Verma (1999) indicate that “material conditions, normative patterns, and cultural values” (p. 728) are considerations that families deliberate when making decisions about children’s free time. Furthermore, Huebner and Mancini (2003) state, “In many respects family values, interests, and capacities control the access that youth have to activity participation, especially when they are younger” (p.460).

Organizing Children’s Activities

Parents’ seeking ways to give their children a competitive advantage for their future utilize available time, the time not spent in school, to enroll children in activities that are valued by the parents and society. In this regard, activities such as sports, the arts, academic enrichment and other activities are seen as a means for parents to enhance children’s social, cognitive, and other capacities (Mahoney, Harris, & Eccles, 2006; Muschamp,, 2009; Shih & Yi, 2014; Bae, Kim, Lee, & Kim,2009). With the growth of children’s participation in organized activities, research has demonstrated that in general, participation in organized activities is associated with positive outcomes for the children (Crosnoe, Smith, Leventhal, 2015; Simpkins, et al., 2005). With the perceived value that parents’ have imparted onto scheduling their children’s time, big business has followed with a proliferation of educational institutes and ‘schools’ providing instruction on various leisure activities (Shih & Yi, 2014).

One problem with relying on private companies to enrich children’s lives is that it fosters further disparity among the economically advantaged and disadvantaged groups of a society. Children of economically advantaged families are able to benefit from the proliferation of private companies providing academic enrichment, sports, the arts, or other desired activities because the families are willing and able to pay for the services being provided. However, children with families from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may not be able to afford to pay for the advantage of private out-of-school enriching activities, thereby widening family related social and economic disparities.

In order to address this concern and fill the need that private educational enrichment companies serve, public schools and community/religious based programs have developed programs that incorporate structured activities that are no cost or low-cost to the students enrolled. In this way, parents’ options have expanded, allowing families to choose from a bevy of affordable out-of-school and/or after-school activities. Despite this move to provide organized, structured activities for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, inequality persists. Examination of enrollment data continues to show that children from economically disadvantaged families are more likely to attend school-based after-school or community/religious based programs, while children from economically advantaged households continue to be enrolled in private programs (Bae, et al., 2009; Simpkins, et al., 2005).

Who Benefits from Extra-Curricular Activities?

Participation in organized activities, both out-of-school and after-school, has been examined to evaluate the benefit provided to the children engaged in the various types of activities. Structured activities usually are supervised by an adult and include, but are not limited to, volunteer work, clubs, religious organization activities, academic enrichment, and arts-based activities (e.g. art, drama, music lessons, etc.). Crosnoe and colleagues (2015) embarked on an investigation that sought to capture activity participation histories of children and explore how those histories impacted academic achievement at the start of high school. The researchers posited that there were important transition times in a child’s life that activity participation would advantage, e.g. elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school. For this investigation, the researchers gathered information about structured activity participation from mothers during first through fifth grade, subsequently the children reported on their own structured activity participation in ninth grade. Additionally, data was gathered on gender, SES, GPA, and other social variables, in addition to the grade level associated with the critical transition times.

Surprisingly, by ninth grade more than nine out of ten students reported involvement in at least one kind of structured activity. Moreover, consistent activity participation throughout the years of schooling was associated with higher academic achievement at the start of high school. Results from this investigation found that children who had consistent participation, whether they started the activity early in elementary school and continued with it or began the activity later in elementary school and persisted in participating, had a greater grade point average (GPA) by almost one standard deviation, over non-participators in ninth grade. Thus, both the duration and timing of engagement in activities was found to be important to GPA.

Results suggested that the consistent participators, tended to be girls, and to come from socially advantaged neighborhoods. However, children from disadvantaged families that were classified as latecomers to an activity, meaning they started participating in the activity late in elementary school, also benefited academically from engagement in an organized, structured activity. Although any kind of participation was found to be positively associated with increased GPA in this investigation, those children who had participated in the organized activity since elementary school (typically economically advantaged girls) evidenced the most positive outcomes (Crosnoe, et al., 2015).

In an effort to understand what predicts an adolescent’s use of free time, Huebner and Mancini (2003) explored the correlates of structured activities for both out-of-school and after-school programs. To determine the factors involved with the utilization of free time, the researchers utilized multiple variables associated with the self (e.g. gender, ethnicity, grade, and academic achievement), with family factors (e.g. SES, family structure, and family processes such as endorsement of an activity), as well as factors associated with friends (e.g. peer pressure, peer activity engagement, etc.) as predictors of participation in structured activities. Several findings emerged; specifically, for school-based after-school activities variables of parental endorsement, ethnicity, and friend endorsement were significant. For out-of-school extra-curricular activities variables of peer pressure, parent endorsement, and high academic achievement were significant. Thus, for both after-school and out-of-school extra-curricular activities, parental endorsement, or support, for the activity the children were enrolled in was important. Gender was found to be an important factor for greater participation in religious activities, with girls participating more than boys. Ethnicity, specifically children identifying as African American, was seen to be important for participation in after-school activities as well as in religious activities. Additionally, there was a positive relationship between grade level and volunteer activities, with a significant association with SES. When children from economically advantaged families reached the upper grades in high school, they engaged in significantly more volunteer activities, often seen as a way to try out careers or as a boost for college applications.

After-School or Out-of-School Activities and Economic Advantage

Muschamp and colleagues (2009) examined whether structured activities in a community setting could compensate for imbalances in school curriculum. In this investigation, early adolescent children’s dispositions were qualitatively analyzed to examine vulnerabilities, identities, experiences, understanding, and involvement in the structured activity. For this investigation, the provision of free school meals served as a proxy variable for economic disadvantage. The researchers found that although both economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged children participated in structured activities, the variety and the number of structured activities differed. In sixth grade economically advantaged children participated in art, music, drama, and sports; however, while economically disadvantaged children also participated in structured activities, they mainly participated in activities provided through the school. In this study, the difference found in the participation gap increased by ninth grade as economically disadvantaged children reduced participation in structured activities and engaged in a narrower range of activities.

Key factors identified as barriers to participation for children from economically disadvantaged families in this investigation included the cost of attending the organized activities, transportation, availability of facilities, and children’s responsibilities in the home. Further complicating the dispositions of the children was the identity development that economically disadvantaged children missed out on when they stopped participating in structured activities. Membership in an activity and the community of practice that surrounds the organized activity was found to provide a positive learning identity for those children able to engage in the organized activities. For economically disadvantaged children, a negative learning identity emerged as a result of non-participation; the vulnerability experienced by the children surfaced as a strategy of self-exclusion. Thus, the physical barriers to out-of-school activities experienced by economically disadvantaged children turned into psychological barriers, limiting the potential for future engagement.


Parents and caregivers want opportunities that communities have to offer to be available to their children. Education has been put forth as the great equalizer, enabling movement between social classes. However, typical educational curriculum is no longer thought to be sufficient; if a little education is good, then more must be better! This thinking, coinciding with the increase of two-parent and single-parent working households, have propelled parents to take up the task of scheduling their children’s free time.

Children’s free time is now organized and scheduled to provide maximum social, cognitive, and skill development. Educational companies and learning professionals have saturated communities in an effort to provide opportunities for academic enhancement, language development, sport training, and engagement with the arts (e.g. music, drama, visual art). Education as big business is available to all children, as long as the family has the ability to pay for the services.

Inequality in after-school educational practices have now become common; economically advantaged families are able to provide high quality valued knowledge and skills that provide benefit to children as they move toward adulthood. However economically disadvantaged families are not able to bolster their children in this way, increasing the inequity. As a means to address the imbalance, school-, community-, and religious-based programs have proliferated. Economically disadvantaged families now have more no- and low-cost educational enrichment opportunities available for their children, although as governmental funding for these programs waxes and wanes, the opportunities and quality of the programs may suffer.

Researchers have investigated the impact of organized, structured activities on children’s development and have concluded that in general, participation in after-school and out-of-school activities bestows positive benefit. Economic realities of modern living ensure that work-life balance complications for parents will continue, therefore school – activity scheduling for children is also sure to continue. Providing organized, structured, high quality activity opportunities within communities to all children is a needed focus for educational systems.


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