There was a time when parents were, in general, far less concerned with what activities their children participated in outside of school. Today, however, families are more inclined to invest resources in after-school programs and summer camps than ever before. As a result in cities like Boston and across the nation, there are a growing number of opportunities and outlets for experiencing a diverse range of quality programs expressly designed for kids. From standbys, such as team sports, dance and music to computer programming, rock climbing and robotics, there exist virtually endless choices in extracurricular activities.

With more options in after-school programs and camps popping up all the time, it’s becoming more difficult to decipher exactly what’s worthy of your child’s time (and your money). To get a firmer grip on the rapidly evolving space, it pays to not only understand what’s available to you and how to choose the program that’s right for your child; but also the factors that have helped usher in the “Age of Extracurricular.”

The Changing Face of Outside-of-School Education

The after-school and camp space has been moving into a new era over the past decade. Joe Kahn, owner and founder of LINX, a program focused on providing fun-based learning environments for kids, says parents in large part have gone from choosing outside-of-school activities to basically use up extra time to seeking out programs that provide clear benefits. “It’s really a transition from eating up time, to using it to smartly help their kids grow. So whether it’s a dance class or theater program or what have you, it’s not just about the kids’ experience in the class, but what they’re getting out of it long-term,” says Kahn.

Scott Brody is the owner and operator of Everwood Day Camp in Sharon, and Camp Kenwood and Camp Evergreen, sleepover camps in New Hampshire. As an industry professional for more than 20 years, Brody says a major contributor to the evolution of the industry is the advantages of teaching in out-of-school settings. “I think all the different experiences kids can engage in really comes to focus on the fact there are skills best learned in these flexible, kid-centered, hands-on environments,” he says.

Brody explains researchers have recognized the power of play and have come to see play as experiential learning and essential to healthy development for kids. Parents are buying into the value of positive youth development, and in turn are looking for experiences that help deliver the skills kids are going to need to be successful and fulfilled in life. Says Brody, “In after-school, summer camp and a lot of other community-based programs, even sports – everybody is talking about the skills kids can build through the activities, rather than talking about the activities themselves. And that’s been a huge sea change.”

What’s the Value?

When considering extracurricular programs and camps, mindful parents may be better served worrying less about the particulars of a specific activity, and focusing on the skills that can be acquired through participation, practice and performance. “Teamwork, collaboration, critical thinking, strategy, creativity, communication and leadership – those skills are actually incredibly vital and provide an enormous advantage to kids who really internalize them through sports, after-school activities, summer learning or summer camps,” says Brody.

Khan explains there’s a whole realm of valuable learning that happens in a school environment around English and math and science and social studies. He also says school isn’t always the best place to learn some of the other things extracurricular programs are able to offer. “In my opinion, kids that come to programs like LINX get the opportunity to dive deep into areas they really care about. Where the after-school programs come into play is to create that specialized experience that’s different for every child,” he says.

Beyond the substantial takeaways of learning computer programs, sports or a musical instrument, the big advantage to seeking quality extracurricular programming is giving kids the chance to practice a set of skills in a setting that captures their interests and imagination. “I don’t want to discount the practical learning that’s taking place. But the truth is, it’s the deeper learning that is really the most valuable piece,” says Brody. “That’s what we’re really trying to do, is build capacities in kids they take with them when they leave our programs. And help them to be more successful in the world to pursue whatever it is that interests them and engages them in the future.”

Combining Trends with Classics

With government-mandated initiatives focused on getting the United States up to speed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related programs that strengthen competency in those subjects are in demand. When done well, programs that incorporate STEM learning into activities are able to engage kids in fun and compelling ways, teach 21st-century skills and expose them to subject matter that’s relevant and vital to our country’s future success.

While alternative athletic activities, such as rock climbing, fencing and martial arts, as well as courses in lab sciences, business, computers and foreign language, have all grown in popularity, evidence shows there’s plenty of demand for what’s generally considered the classics. “There’s still a ton of interest in the very traditional stuff –  major sports, dance and theater have been huge in terms of interest,” says Kahn. “The teamwork that comes from sports, the confidence that comes from dance and theater and the performing element where you’re going to get up on the stage and perform in front of lots of people. It’s not only fun for the kids but the way it prepares them for the inevitable competition that’s to come in high school and college is massive.”

Choosing the Right Experiences 

It seems a logical starting place to simply let your child’s interests guide the way in identifying extracurricular activities and camps that are worthwhile. However, the amount your child’s opinion plays in the decision making process depends greatly on age and ability to rationalize. “While we want to absolutely have our kids be part of that conversation, I think it’s also vital for parents to maintain their role as decision maker and really help assess what their child is ready for. And when it’s time, to help them sort of lean into the discomfort that may come from a new and challenging situation,” says Brody. “If we protect our children from the discomfort of challenge, then it becomes much more difficult for them to grow.”

Kahn believes when kids are younger than 3 years old, choosing activities is completely your decision. And by the time they’re teens, it’s pretty much theirs. In the years between, it’s something of a collaborative approach where parents help guide children toward decisions, and kids start to become more and more involved. “What I think works best is when parents find programs that kids want to go to,” says Kahn. “When they want to go, they’ll learn a lot. And when they don’t, they won’t.”

No matter the type of activities you’re targeting, there are crucial factors to consider in ensuring you’re making a smart investment. Sure, your 8-year-old might be pumped up about participating in a robotics course, but it can be difficult for a parent to quantify what the experience is really worth.

“There are so many programs I would call time eaters. And there’s nothing the kids get out of it,” says Kahn. He recommends looking for programs other families are willing to endorse, and to ask questions, such as what your child’s experience will be like, who will be leading the class, what their background is and how long they’ve been working for the company. Says Kahn, “The most critical part is to look at the supervisory team and how long they’ve been around. Those are the people who are really setting the vision and the direction to the program. And when there’s a lot of turnover, there’s a reason why.”

Brody explains the camps he runs focus on the four C’s: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. He recommends determining if the program you’re considering is thoughtful about its learning goals, and if they’re trying to teach the lifelong skills that contribute to healthy development. “I also want to know the program is staffed by talented and caring individuals. And that my child will, in an appropriate way, feel physically and emotionally safe, so they can learn and grow in the ways I want them to,” he concludes.

Embrace the Opportunities

As parents, we tend to feel nostalgic for the way things used to be when we were young, but we probably would have been psyched out of our minds for the chance to experience some of what’s available to kids today. So what if you seriously doubt your little one will ever work in robotics, or dance or play sports professionally? Few will. It’s the experience, enjoying it, trying something totally new and learning what they’re capable of that’s really important.

Says Kahn, “It’s more about understanding the long-term takeaways the kids will be able to look back on in their lives. The programs that understand that, those are the ones you want to go for. At LINX, we always work for the ‘wow’ moment, where the parent and the kid and everybody just says, ‘Wow, look what I’m doing.’”

Quality extracurricular programs and camps can help children develop resiliency and experience a sense of independence and feeling of accomplishment that’s real. “As a parent, and a provider in the space, I try to keep my eyes on the prize of making sure my child has the skills they’re going to need to be successful on their own. Then you can’t lose,” says Brody. “And I think your children will ultimately be incredibly grateful you gave them the opportunity to learn in such a fun and engaging way.”

Brian Spero is a father and frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.