How can you help guide your children to the most enriching after-school activities? It helps first of all to think about the options.

In 2005, according to estimates from Child Trends DataBank, the most popular after-school activity for children was sports, with 31 percent of children participating in sports-related programs outside of school hours. Other popular choices included religious activities (20 percent), arts (18 percent), scouts (10 percent), community service (8 percent), academic activities (7 percent), and school clubs (6 percent). To identify local opportunities for your child, ask at school and inquire at places such as swim centers, arts centers, museums, recreation centers, colleges and universities, and churches.

Sometimes the choice for an appropriate outside activity comes from your own goals for your child. For example, if you want to use time after school to fill a gap in what is offered by the school, you might consider music lessons. If your child is struggling in a particular subject, tutoring might be a good idea. If your child needs to burn off energy or needs to be more physically active, you might want to look into an activity such as karate.

But the after-school activities that are the most fun for children usually emerge from their own interests. Be careful about urging your child toward some interest that you harbor or letting them bend to peer pressure. “Ask yourself whether your child really loves this activity,” advises social psychologist Susan Newman, author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day and The Book of No: 250 Ways To Say It—and Mean It—and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. “If the activity is not something the child is even moderately good at, it can have a negative effect on his self-perception.”

So listen to your child. Look in particular for persistent expressions of interest rather than something a child mentions once or twice. Figure out what sparked the interest. Was it a friend? Was it seeing the activity? Then ask yourself whether your child is physically old enough for the activity or what the benefits will be.

If a child doesn’t express a particular interest vocally, look for other clues. “We know our children better than anyone else,” says Newman. “As a parent, you have some [indication] of what your child might be interested in or where his strong suits are.” For example, for a child who is always doodling, you might suggest art lessons. For a child who keeps trying to reach the basketball hoop, mention the basketball team. For the child who loves to argue, propose debate.

For the child who wants to be involved in multiple activities, force him to prioritize. Or if your child jumps into activities and then quits, allow such experimenting but don’t invest in the necessary equipment right away. For example, if your child decides she wants horseback riding or guitar lessons, borrow or rent or buy used items until you see a deep commitment.

And for the child who resists involvement in any activities at all, don’t push too hard. “Some children are loners and quite content being by themselves,” says Newman. “Pushing your child to get out and do something is going to make him miserable. Just keep suggesting possibilities.”

Activities and College Admission

Whatever you choose, don’t overdo it. “What’s happened today is that parenting has become this competitive sport and the trophy is to get your child into a good college,” Newman says. “To that end, children are overscheduled and they have absolutely no down time. For some children, this works fine, but for the majority, the pressure is intense and they’re exhausted and their academics suffer. In going for the top college prize, parents erroneously think the more activities, the better their child will look on applications, and that’s not what colleges are looking at anymore, if they ever were.”

A single, lasting commitment to one activity is more impressive, she says. And activities that detract from academic performance will end up hurting the child’s chances later on.

Newman particularly warns against overinvolvement in sports, citing recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children take the summer off from a sport and that they not play on two teams in the same sport so as to avoid serious injury.

Overscheduling can affect your family life, too, so consider the demands on your own time. Keep in mind what will be expected of you when your child begins a new activity. This will include time and transportation, obviously. But it can also mean volunteering, fundraising, and coaching.

One way to let children try out different interests without too much commitment is to enroll them in summer programs. Many of these activities, which can run as short as a week, can be a good way to explore different interests during a time of year that’s free from the pressure of school demands.

Another activity—and one that’s free—is to let your child volunteer at a local agency. Usually, child volunteers must be at least middle school age. Organized volunteer programs can be fun and enlightening for children while helping them develop a commitment to community service.