Brain Power Boost: Benefits of After-School Activities - MetroFamily Magazine
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Brain Power Boost: Benefits of After-School Activities

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 7 minutes 

Extracurricular activities like sports or creative arts provide opportunities for fun, friendship and skill-building. But did you know they can be fundamental to your child’s brain development? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood experiences—both positive and negative—impact a child’s lifelong health and opportunity.

“There are many ingredients necessary in a child’s life to help him or her reach his full potential,” said Jane Sutter, president & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County. “At the most basic level, a core ingredient is a safe environment with nurturing adults.”

When children are afforded stable, nurturing relationships in environments like extracurricular or after-school programs provide, their physical, emotional, social, behavioral and intellectual capacities all benefit, positively impacting their health and skill development. Tammy Lawson, education director for Special Care, Inc., said students need to be involved in extracurricular activities to help them gain social experience critical to development.

“They are able to learn how to act around their peers, while still being supervised by an adult, which creates a certain level of comfort,” said Lawson.

Lifelong skills and lessons gained from extracurricular activities take students far past their little league or music lessons days, developing well-rounded kids. Here are a few of the benefits you can expect your kids to gain in after-school activities.

Improve academically.

The AfterSchool Alliance reports children who participate in after-school programs see improvements in their classroom behavior and increase their likelihood of moving on to the next grade level and graduating. In fact, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative (the only federally-funded source dedicated exclusively to before-school, after-school and summer learning programs) reports a third of its after-school program participants improved English grades, nearly three quarters improving math grades and two thirds improving classroom behavior. More than 120 communities in Oklahoma are served by a CCLC program.

Backbeat Garage in Edmond offers music lessons for all ages and owner Debbie Gilliam’s programs are based on the idea that music skills lead to greater academic achievement.

“Music impacts the brain functions related to spatial reasoning, including problem solving, mathematics and creative scientific processes,” said Gilliam. “Music students tend to be more creative and show an increased ability to solve problems and set goals.”

Backbeat Garage’s preschool program teaches music and math in tandem. Presented as an adventure on a train, the class helps students understand math concepts like pattern recognition, number sense and graphing, all through music.

“It is amazing to observe the higher level thinking skills that preschool students are capable of demonstrating and accomplishing,” said Gilliam.

Serve others.

Boy Scouts of America places tremendous value on getting participants involved in their communities to volunteer their time and talents. Scouts see firsthand the impact of serving others.

“They realize the joy of any occasion is to be on the giving side of the equation,” said Theresa James, development executive for the Last Frontier Council of Boy Scouts of America. “It helps to take the focus off themselves and onto the greater good of their community.”

Thanks to a new scouting program for kindergartners, even more boys will have the opportunity to gain a foundation of servitude, which James said is important to teach when kids are young.

“Research shows that brain development primarily occurs in the first years of a child’s life, and the earlier we emphasize the importance of traits such as honesty, loyalty and reverence, the better,” said James.

The Lion program for the Last Frontier Council will begin this fall, meeting once a month to teach the values and morals of scouting through fun activities and lessons. Parents will participate along with their children with the intent of strengthening their bond.

“Today’s families more than ever struggle to find time to spend together,” said James, “Cub Scouting helps support families by providing ready-made opportunities for you and your son to do together.”

Learn to express themselves and appreciate creativity.

“The human spirit needs outlets of expression,” said Sutter, who enjoys watching students at Boys & Girls Club gain exposure to art, music, technology and sports, sometimes for the first time. “Children particularly need to be able to express themselves through visual art, music and dance. With the budget shortfalls in our public education system, arts and sports are often the first areas to be cut.”

That diminished funding for the arts in schools means parents often have to look elsewhere for programs where students can discover, create and perform. According to Shannon Price, executive director of the Edmond Fine Arts Institute, learning to create and appreciate visual aesthetics is an important part of a child’s education. From preschool through high school, FAI students can participate in a wide variety of creative arts like theatre, music, painting, drawing, sculpture and even jewelry-making classes.

“Many activities in school, and in children’s daily lives, require a specific answer,” said Price. “Performing and visual arts allow children to think outside the box, use creative problem solving skills and discover multiple answers for a variety of questions through trial and error.”

Lawson and Price agree that participating in creative arts has a positive impact on students’ performance in school, developing motor skills, spatial awareness, language skills, cultural awareness, confidence, collaborative skills and problem-solving.

“When kids are encouraged to express themselves and take risks in creating art, they develop a sense of innovation that is important in their adult lives,” Price said.

Become team players. 

Kids grow into adults who must know how to work well with others. Whether it be in an office setting or in their families, teamwork is an important life skill.

Mike Roark, district executive director for the Edmond YMCA, said team sports teach kids they have value by showing them how learning and developing their individual skills will help their team. The Y’s team sports program offers a variety of sports like soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball for ages 3 and up.

While competitive sports offer a great framework in which to learn teamwork, more individualized sports like gymnastics also teach important lessons about being a team player. Sarah Brawley owns Metro Gymnastics and said learning to support and value the other members of a gymnastics team teaches invaluable lessons. Metro Gymnastics offers classes for all ages from toddlers through competitive team gymnastics and working cooperatively and in support of each other is emphasized at all levels.

“The children encourage each other on a daily basis,” said Brawley. “They can relate to the hard work that goes into the accomplishment of achieving an easy or very difficult skill.”

Boy Scouts also focuses on teaching members to share, make friends, work together and help one another.

“Like sports, Scouting teaches teamwork,” said James. “Unlike sports that frequently emphasize competition and winning, Scouting fosters friendship and camaraderie.”

James believes learning teamwork without the competitive spirit gives boys confidence to becoming leaders, and learn the value of being kind, helpful and humble.

Develop their own passions and step out of their comfort zones.

There is a sense of empowerment and independence when kids get to assert which activities they want to spend time learning and perfecting. Finding and developing their own passions can help them feel comfortable and confident about their identity during a time in their lives when self-esteem is often lacking.

“Activities outside of school gave me an independence and value system that was all mine, not one that was determined by the public opinion at school,” said Gilliam.

Finding activities they are good at and enjoy increases kids’ self-esteem. Sometimes that means they have to be pushed a little out of their comfort zones, which Lawson said can be beneficial.

“It helps them learn to evaluate the risk and determine how to proceed,” said Lawson. “It helps to teach courage and gives them a tremendous sense of accomplishment when they achieve something they otherwise may not have tried.”

Value healthy lifestyles.

In an age when childhood obesity prevalent, learning the value in movement is crucial. One of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County’s main goals for its members is learning to make healthy lifestyle choices, through both exercise and nutritious food.

“Physical activity is important for a healthy mind and body,” said Sutter. “Youth who do not have after school activities are more likely to spend their days in front of a TV.”

Boys & Girls Club offers daily recreational sports like karate, soccer, basketball, volleyball, wrestling and even ballet.

Both Roark and Brawley see their programs as key ingredients in giving kids a better quality of life for the long-term.

“We encourage children to be physically active and hope that each child will want to be active throughout their lifetime,” said Brawley.

The Y has a “healthy snacks” requirement for all of its team sports, encouraging parents to provide good fuel for the team after each game.

“Learning the importance of the types of things that you need to fuel your body with, such as fruit and water, helps to expose, encourage and reinforce healthy habits during sporting activities, as well as when they aren’t participating in sports,” said Roark.

Learn self-discipline and time management.

Many extracurricular activities require commitment and consistency, even more than talent, according to Gilliam. Learning to stick with something, even when it gets difficult or tiring, teaches kids responsibility.

“Those requirements are difficult and somewhat foreign in our current society,” said Gilliam. “I believe those are exactly the things our kids need to give them the skills to be successful adults.”

Gilliam hopes her Backbeat Garage students come away with a desire to pursue excellence in all areas of their lives. For gymnastics students at the competitive level, the sport can require much time and effort, and an ability to balance that with school and other activities. Commitment and hardworking ethics are cornerstones in what Brawley strives to impart to all the students at Metro Gymnastics.

“We want them to gain the confidence to know they can do anything they set their mind to and reach their goal,” said Brawley.

Gain a lifelong love of learning.

School can be stressful, particularly for kids who struggle. Even for those for whom academics come easily, the “forced” nature of school can make kids balk and parents doubt their kids will ever enjoy learning. But, when they get to choose how they spend their time in an extracurricular activity they enjoy, it promotes the idea that learning can be enjoyable.

“We all have different learning styles,” said Gilliam. “After school activities provide a more flexible and accepting environment without the pressure of state testing and school rules.”

Whether through music, art or sports, kids gain tools to express themselves for the rest of their lives and learn skills they can continue to hone and enjoy into adulthood.

“Music is a lifelong skill,” said Gilliam. “It’s not about creating concert pianists.”

Striking a balance is key

Because every child is different, each will enjoy varied levels of activity. Activities must be balanced with kids’ schoolwork, family time, getting enough sleep and exercising. Just as important as structured activities is ample time for free play, particularly for young kids.

“In our busy world, it is important to remember that children need free play,” said Lawson. “This is how they learn to problem-solve. Often children who are over-scheduled burn out and lose interest in any extra activities.”

As a mom, James agrees that a good mix of activities and time to relax is key. She finds that time around the dinner table is usually the best time to learn about her kids’ concerns, stresses, friends, achievements and aspirations.

“Good communication is the best way to know if your child is stressed or overextended,” said James. “It is critical to carve out two nights or so each week that are off limits to outside interference and are strictly for family time.”

Find a comprehensive list of after-school activities offered in the Oklahoma City area here.

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