What to Do, What to Play?

When your children reach a certain age, many parents will start thinking about extracurricular activities and what skills they want to develop in their little ones. For some parents, what activities to put your children in is a simple choice. Perhaps you grew up playing soccer, so you feel at home on the soccer field on a spring day. Or maybe you were an accomplished gymnast and want your little rug rats to experience a similar glory. For most parents, there are practical, financial and even safety factors to consider.

I find choosing my children’s extracurricular activities to be an exercise in second-guessing at times. What if I am harboring a musical prodigy and don’t even know it yet? Because I grew up enjoying the fine arts, especially studio art and dance, I find myself gravitating toward those activities for my children.

It’s important not to make early assumptions about your children’s abilities. Perhaps they do not excel at the traditional sports offered at the middle school level, like basketball, volleyball and track. I was as slow as a snail at sprinting and terrified of hurdling, picturing myself tripping and sprawled all over the track. I wasn’t deemed especially athletic.

However, when I picked up a tennis racket at age 13, or took tennis lessons once again in my mid-20s, I realized that I could have had a decent shot at being a competent recreational tennis player. I also discovered that my slow and steady pace on the middle school track gave way to endurance in running half-marathons. Your kid may not excel at the higher profile sports, but there are a myriad of options like lacrosse, tennis, golf and archery that go beyond most traditional school programs. The tough thing with kids is figuring out where they might excel and where their passion lies.

I was a late joiner to studio dance; a class as a young child didn’t ignite a fire in me, probably due to the strictness of the instructor. I don’t think it was the ballet, tap and jazz I didn’t like; it was the particular stodginess of the program. I later rejoined the world of dance in middle school, and performing on the high school dance team was the best part of my high school years. If you think your child may enjoy an activity but a particular instructor or school isn’t working out, you might want to try a different studio, teacher or league before calling it quits on that venture.

My children, including my two sons, take variations of dance, tumbling and art classes. My sons are young, and even if they do not grow up to be professional dancers, dance is a solid basis for developing discipline, flexibility and agility. One of them is built like a linebacker, so he will probably not leap as a principal dancer in “The Nutcracker” someday, but he might surprise me. My middle son is more of a slight build and loves to move, so he might have a future with dance.

Some reasons for my choice of their activity are practical ones: we don’t have to trek to Saturday games, and this particular studio offers a variety of classes in an unlimited package for three children. The program essentially offers one-stop shopping for busy parents. My two oldest love soccer, but I am not ready to spend every Saturday on the soccer field. We have found a happy medium with our local YMCA, which offers indoor soccer seasonally with no games or practices on Saturday, and more of an emphasis on fun and learning than competition.

Which brings me to football. I grew up watching college football since about the age of three. I attended a certain university because I couldn’t imagine not spending my college years in a football stadium every Saturday in the fall. I saw my team win the National Championship in person, witnessed our Heisman Trophy winner break long-held records from the stands and viewed sports history in the making. I have even dreamed at night of running under the lights, fielding punts, thinking I must have played football (at least on special teams) in a past life.

I live in a state where kids start football young. I am originally from a state where the Friday Night Lights still dominate towns. I always dreamed of having sons who one day played football, and I have friends whose boys play football all the way from the Pee Wee level to the NFL. I am not knocking any parents who put their sons in football, because I understand that passion and that choice.

I was at the pediatrician’s office the other day for a well-child visit for my middle son. The nurse commented on his soccer shirt and mentioned that the same sports group offered football for young children in some nearby schools. I told her that they tried to offer the football program at my child’s preschool but not enough children signed up, preferring the popular soccer program. She told me that she had also missed out on the opportunity for her son to play football in the preschool program, and that he was finally playing football, and had never even played tackle before. “Oh wow,” I uttered, “and how old is he now?,” imagining a 15-year-old boy suiting up for the first time at the tackle position. “Six,” she said.

Her son is likely among a group of elementary school boys who practice for upwards of two hours on the field behind our house in the autumn glow. The little cheerleaders cheer them on as they practice and race around the field. My boys will not be joining their peers in playing Pee Wee football, because I have read and heard too much about traumatic brain injuries and high school football deaths to suit them up. However, if I had a son determined to play in high school and passionate about the game, I’m not sure I could tell him no. Time will tell, but in the meantime we will explore other sports like baseball, soccer and perhaps golf.

We recently watched a touching segment on the national news. The story centered on a ballerina who created an entire ballet performance based on her son’s life and ultimate death as a Marine in Iraq. The young man had studied ballet as a child and teen and endured some ridicule as a result of his passion. He enlisted in the Marines immediately after high school and was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb in 2006. His mother drew parallels between the traits that made him an accomplished ballet dancer and those attributes that made him a good Marine. The story stuck with me as a valuable lesson — our children may take the skills we cultivate in them and apply their talents toward an endeavor we never imagined, a future we may never have pictured for them. And toughness in boys is not only developed on a football field.