Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Extracurricular Activities: An Essential Aspect of Education

by Jennifer Fredricks — May 23, 2011
In this commentary, the author makes the case for broadening our notion of education to consider organized out-of-school activities (i.e., extracurricular activities, after school programming) as an essential aspect of education. She describes the reasons why these activities provide unique opportunities for learning and development and reviews the research linking participation to higher achievement, physical health, and mental health functioning. She concludes by arguing that cuts to extracurricular and after-school programming is a misguided and costly policy decision. 

Students are only in school for seven hours a day, 180 days of the year, which leaves a significant time period each day for youth to be involved in either risky or productive activities. One way many youth choose to spend this time is in organized activities, like sports, the arts, and after school programs. Youth who participate in organized out-of-school activities have less time available to spend in unstructured and unsupervised contexts, both of which have been linked to less positive developmental outcomes (Mahoney & Stattin, 2000). The difference in behavior and affect between school and organized out-of-school contexts is also striking. Youth report high concentration and attention in organized activities, like sports and the arts, while they report high levels of boredom and low intrinsic motivation in traditional academic contexts. Larson (2000) argues that youth tend to report more positive psychological states in organized activities because they experience challenge and perceive themselves to be active, in control, and competent in these settings.

Participation in organized activities can provide unique opportunities for learning, positive growth, and development. Youth who participate in school-based extracurricular contexts have been found to have stronger relations with teachers and have more academically-oriented peers than youth who are not involved in extracurricular activities (Broh, 2002; Fredricks & Eccles, 2005). Through participation, youth also can develop a wide range of skills, many of which are more difficult to develop in traditional academic settings. In qualitative research, youth report that they learned emotional, cognitive, physical, interpersonal, and social skills by participating in organized out-of-school contexts (Hansen, Larson, & Dworkin, 2002). Involvement in these activities also can help youth to develop life skills such as problem solving, time management, goal setting, decision-making, and leadership skills.

The value of investing in organized non-academic activities is currently being questioned. Some educators and policy makers continue to assume that activities, like sports and the arts, are just “extras” and are only for fun and recreation. In an era of accountability and fiscal constraints, many schools have limited their resources to those aspects of the curriculum that are mandated as part of No Child Left Behind. It is estimated that in the 2009-2010 year, schools eliminated over 2 billion dollars from their after-school budgets (Caccamo & Porter, 2010). I strongly believe that making cuts to extracurricular and after-school programming is a misguided, shortsighted, and costly policy decision. These activities only use a small portion of school budgets (1-3%) yet they serve a large percentage of youth with this money. National surveys have shown that over 80% of youth reported participating in school-based extracurricular activities (Mahoney, Harris, & Eccles, 2006). Evidence also suggests that after-school programming is cost effective, and spending money now can save money in the future. A cost-benefit analysis of after-school programming in California showed that each dollar invested returns between $8.92 and $12.90 to the school system (Brown, Frates, Rudge, & Tradewll, 2002). This is an extraordinary one thousand percent return on investment that comes primarily from higher achievement and lower crime rates among those youth that are involved in these activities. With this type of savings, it is hard to argue that these are not dollars well spent.

Some educators have expressed concern that participation in organized activities competes for students’ time and attention and takes away from time that can be spent on school work. There is little evidence to support this fear. Instead the evidence tends to suggest that extracurricular programming may actually help schools in meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Several studies have shown that youth who participate in organized activities have higher grades, higher achievement test scores, greater school engagement, and are more likely to attend college (Feldman & Matjusko, 2005). Furthermore, organized activity participants are less likely to drop out of school, with the benefits being largest for students who are academically at-risk (Mahoney & Cairns, 1997). The reality is that for some students, the opportunity to participate in organized non-academic contexts is the only reason they come to school, stay in school, and do the work. Cuts to extracurricular programming can be devastating for these youth.

Getting youth involved in organized activities not only increases their educational opportunities, but also can improve their long-term health. The dramatic increase in obesity rates and number of youth developing adult diseases at an early age has heightened the call for solutions to this growing epidemic. Treating these health conditions represents an extraordinary and unsustainable economic and societal burden. To combat these challenges, several governmental agencies have argued that it is necessary to increase opportunities for physical activity in schools during both the school day and after school hours. Unfortunately, many schools have responded to budget constraints and accountability pressures by taking the opposite approach, making significant cuts to both their physical education and after-school programming. This decision has costly public health consequences, as prior research has shown that participation in organized sports reduces body weight, strengthens bones, and maintains cardiovascular health (Team up for Youth, 2010). In addition to improving physical health outcomes, several studies have shown that involvement in sports and other school-based extracurricular contexts can improve mental health. Youth who participate in these activities have higher self-esteem, psychological resiliency, and lower depression rates than youth who are not involved in these contexts. Organized activities also have protective effects; youth in these activities are more likely to postpone sexual activity, have lower rates of juvenile delinquency, and are less likely to smoke and use other illegal substances (Feldman & Matjusko, 1997).  

The budget situation has forced schools to make hard choices about how to allocate their limited resources. Some have argued that recreation and community-based activities can help to offset some of the cuts to school-based extracurricular programming. In many under-resourced neighborhoods, youth have few opportunities to participate in organized activities in their communities, and making cuts to school programming would be devastating. Other schools have tried to offset budget cuts by instituting “pay to play” policies, where parents pay for participation, transportation, or equipment costs. Unfortunately, these policies have reduced participation rates, especially among low-income youth (Hoff & Mitchell, 2006). The decrease in participation among low-income youth is especially troubling because they are the youth who are more likely to live in under-resourced communities with limited organized activities for youth to participate in outside of their schools. These youth also get the greatest benefits from participating in school-based extracurricular contexts and can least afford these cuts.

Although cuts to extracurricular and after-school programming may seem like a good solution now, the reality is that down the line these decisions may have repercussions that will be much more costly in the long term. It is likely that we will have to pay greater costs related to treating childhood obesity, fighting crime, and supporting youth who drop out of school. I strongly encourage educators to broaden the view of education and see these activities as essential to learning and not just “extras.”


Broh, B. A. (2002). Linking extracurricular programming to academic achievement: Who benefits and why? Sociology of Education, 75, 69-91.

Brown, W. O., Frates, S. B, Rudge, I. S., Tradewell, R. L. (2002). The costs and benefits of after school programs: The estimated effects of the after school education and safety program act of 2002. Retrieved from http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/rose/publications/pdf//after_school.pdf

Caccamo, P., & Porter, O. C. (2010). Presenting sports as agent for social change. Up2Us NikeGetSet Orange Paper.

Feldman, A. F., & Matjasko, J. L. (2005). The role of school-based extracurricular activities in adolescent development: A comprehensive review and future directions. Review of Educational Research, 75, 159-210.

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