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Fall brings pumpkins, homework and busy evenings of sports, arts, lessons and some pretty adorable performances. Afterschool activities can open doors to lifelong hobbies and even career choices, but parents should help their children choose wisely.

Natalie Mullen, a school counselor at Pine Street Elementary School in Spartanburg, said the key to a healthy afterschool life is all about balance.

“What works for your family might not work for another,” she said. “Even within the same family, one child may need more down time and one child may need more structured time.”

Parents should consider their needs, too. Afterschool activities can push schedules and finances too far if they get out of control. But the benefits to children are undeniable when families can find that balance.

“Explore what they might be interested in,” Mullen said. “Let them help choose. Schools are able to offer a good bit of arts programs but not everything. It’s a good way to build friendships outside of school.”

Coaches and afterschool teachers can also serve as role models for children.

“The more good role models they have, the better,” Mullen said.

Mullen said afterschool activities can build discipline and even help children learn conflict resolution.

“They are figuring things out for themselves,” she said. “You need variety to make life interesting. They may meet friends in their activity one year and then have them in their class the next. It’s a good way to broaden their base of friends.”

Success in an extracurricular activity can spill over into other areas. Children who might struggle a bit in the classroom could be buoyed by finding it elsewhere.

“It builds self-confidence and pride in themselves,” Mullen said.

Sometimes even the best laid plans fall apart. What should parents do when that much desired activity doesn’t turn out as planned?

“There are two sides to that coin – making sure they are dedicated but not making them do it if they truly hate it,” Mullen said. “Let the child have a way out.”

Mullen suggests having them commit for a season or a defined period of time.

“Let them know it’s OK to quit sometimes, but I would put a schedule out to give it a good healthy try,” she said. “Especially with younger ones, it’s good to get a taste of different things.”

It is easy to let too many good things become overwhelming, for both children and their parents.

‘If it’s impacting your family time, step back and see where things can give a bit,” Mullen said. “I would be guarded and stingy and protective of their time. Just because their friends are doing it, it might not be right for your family. You don’t have to do what everybody else does. Doing nothing is good for children, too. Don’t get so caught up in what everybody else is doing.”

Mullen suggests carpooling to help ease the time commitment, and no matter what activity children choose, do some research to find a quality program.

“Every parent wants what is best for their children,” Mullen said. “You are spending a lot of time and money.”

As children grow and mature, their interests are bound to change. Mullen said that is just part of growing up.

“Be prepared for it to change every year,” she said. “What worked in first grade might not work in fourth grade.”

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