Kids need some downtime after a hard day at school. But just because they aren’t doing schoolwork, doesn’t mean they can’t still learn something. Plenty of after-school activities are both fun and good for child brain development.
After-school activities such as playing chess, learning a language and joining the science club are all activities that might first leap to mind. And those are all great ways to exercise the brain and keep your kids learning even after the last school bell.
But activities don’t have to be extensions of school to be good for a child’s brain. Social learning is an important component of development as well, says Tzu-Jung Lin, associate professor of educational studies at Ohio State University.
Any game or activity that involves social interaction is conducive to learning. For example, if your child is in a choir, they’re not listening to just their own voice, Lin says, but to the other singers as well. This helps them learn to collaborate and even develop empathy.
Activities that are good for the brain aren’t always what we tend to think of as “brainy.” Research has shown that physical activity can improve children’s ability to focus their attention, improve executive function and give them greater cognitive flexibility. Physical activity has also been found to improve working memory, verbal ability and academic performance in kids.
Physical activity doesn’t have to be organized sports. Though playing on the tennis team or taking gymnastics are likely to be as good for the brain as for the body, so are riding bikes, tossing a frisbee and playing hopscotch. (And if you don’t remember hopscotch, check it out here.)
More About Empathy for Kids:
Theater can help children engage on a deeper, emotional level because it incorporates more of their senses.
Social mirroring and perspective-taking are two modes of processing that suggest empathy.
Brain-healthy downtime doesn’t have to be organized or school-sponsored, and it doesn’t need to involve grown-ups at all. In fact, sometimes it’s better when the adults stay out of it. Less formal activities, or what Lin calls “self-regulating” activities, are as important as structured ones, she says. Though it’s easy to forget that free play is good, even essential, for social development, research has shown that play has an important role in the development of the ability to plan ahead, solve problems and regulate emotions.
Free play is also important because it gives kids a much-needed sense of agency, Lin says. In addition, it helps with social development. When kids have conflicts — and they will — if there is no adult handy to sort things out, they have to figure out ways to resolve those conflicts on their own.
What to Choose?
When it comes to steering your kids toward after-school activities, Lin recommends finding things they’re interested in. But don’t think this means afternoons spent with video games and television and nothing else. Plenty of things kids naturally love to do can be intellectually stimulating.
Kids will also feel motivated when they choose the activities themselves. And once they’re motivated, they won’t need parents to pressure them to spend time on these activities. You might have to point out a few options, though. Here are a few you might not have thought of:
What kid doesn’t like bugs? Kids can watch insects or collect them (via cell-phone photos) in the backyard or at a nearby park. It’s good for their brains and gets them outside. Win-win.
Kids are natural collectors. If yours aren’t into stamps or coins, they might go for baseball cards (which can lead to a beneficial interest in statistics) or leaves (this activity is free and gets them outside — one study found that just being around trees boosted cognitive development in kids). Collecting anything that requires organization and learning about the history or science of a subject is great for the brain.
Puzzles and riddles intrigue most kids. Lateral thinking puzzles are classic brain builders and can be fun and sometimes silly. And kids don’t have to stop at solving them. Encourage them to make up their own brain twisters — your kids might even help you develop some extra brain power.