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Extracurriculars: Finding the Right Fit for Your Child

Your child is dying to play hockey  -- but does he really have time? Is he ready? Will you have to make a major investment just to get him started? Or maybe you're not sure if you can handle hours of art lessons every week. Here's everything you need to know before you enroll your child in some of the most popular extracurricular activities

FOOTBALL

Age to start

Tackle football is for ages 7 and up; flag-football programs often start at age 5. Make sure your child knows that many of the positions in football require blocking and tackling  -- not everyone gets to throw and catch, unlike flag-football programs.

Cost

From $25 to $100 per season for league play. Other costs include cleats and a helmet, under $100.

Time commitment

From Aug. 1 until school starts, conditioning and practice up to ten hours per week. After school begins, three two-hour sessions of practice and one game per week through October.

Special skills

Football players don't have to be big kids  -- at this level, a desire to play is all that's needed.

Safety concerns

Players are grouped by age and weight. Football has a reputation for serious injuries, but most injuries (especially at this level) are bruises, sprains, fractures, and concussions.

SOCCER

Age to start

Four for recreational play; 6 for traveling teams.

Cost

Average cost for recreational teams is $50 to $70 per season, more for traveling teams. Uniforms and warm-up outfits are usually extra. Soccer players need shin guards and their own ball (sizes vary by age); most players also invest in a pair of cleats.

Time commitment

For children under 8, one after-school practice per week and one weekend game. Add one or two additional practices as kids get older and more competitive.

Special skills

Soccer is the quintessential starter sport. Various types of soccer are often offered, including small-sided (three-on-three soccer on a smaller field) or full-size soccer using eight players and a goalie (11 players per side for 12 years and up).

Safety concerns

The American Youth Soccer Organization discourages "heading" (using the head to hit the ball) for younger players.

DANCE

Age to start

As early as 4 to 6 for creative dance and pre-ballet/tap combination classes.

Cost

Approximately $5 to $10 per hour for a group lesson.

Time commitment

One hour a week at first, which builds to two, then three times a week by age 9, and eventually daily hour-long lessons.

Special skills

To excel at dance, children need to be focused and disciplined. But, like drama, a klutzy or shy child could find a home on the stage.

Safety concerns

Don't push a child into pointe ballet too young, which could harm ankle and foot development. Always check teachers' credentials and, if possible, observe a class.

DRAMA

Age to start

As young as 6, although optimal age is about 9.

Cost

From $150 to $550 for an eight-week workshop, depending on region of the country.

Time commitment

Classes usually meet for one hour per week, sometimes twice a week. Rehearsing lines at home nightly for at least two hours per week.

Special skills

Enthusiasm and energy are a plus, but children don't have to be outgoing. Sometimes a shy child blossoms in a drama program. Drama often helps children with ADHD to focus. Just make sure that the desire to be on stage comes from your child, not from you.

Safety concerns

None, except perhaps a first-performance case of stage fright.

SWIMMING

Age to start

As young as 6; youngest competitive age bracket is for 8 and under.

Cost

Depends on coaching staff experience and pool fees. Summer programs can cost $100 to $150; year-round (Oct.-March) seasons run $400-$500. Plus a team suit (about $35 for girls, $20 for boys), swim cap, and goggles.

Time commitment

Many teams practice one hour per day, two to five days a week with four-hour meets on weekends. Meets begin early in the morning, as do most summer practices. If your child is interested, start with a summer program  -- they have shorter seasons and are less rigorous.

Special skills

Must be able to swim one length of the pool on stomach and back and safely tread water.

Safety concerns

Swimming is the most injury-free of competitive sports. Coaches should be trained in CPR, first aid, and water-safety instruction.

HOCKEY/FIGURE SKATING

Age to start

As young as 4 for hockey; 3 for skating lessons.

Cost

Hockey: $25 to be a member of USA Hockey; about $300 for equipment. As your child moves up, team fees may be $500 to $700 per season. Skating: Ice time is about $9 per hour for practice. Coaching fees start at $20 per half hour; group lessons are about $75 for 7 weeks. Skates are $50 to $400.

Time commitment

Hockey: About two hours a week; more for traveling teams. Skating: An hour a week to four hours a day for elite skaters. Hockey and skating have odd hours, from very early to very late.

Special skills

Skating requires no skills to start; before signing up for hockey, your child should be able to skate.

Safety concerns

Skating injuries are mostly bumps and bruises. Common hockey injuries are to the thigh, wrist, and shoulder.

BASKETBALL

Age to start

Ages 4 to 7 can sign up for skills development, 8 and up for team competitive play.

Cost

About $20 to $50 for an 8- to 10-week session for league play. Players will also need basketball shoes. Most leagues provide T-shirts, players may need to have their own ball (different sizes are available, check with the league).

Time commitment

One hour of practice and one game per week for a typical league. Traveling or competitive leagues require a much heavier time commitment including longer daily practices and games at least once or twice a week.

Special skills

Another good beginner sport. Children only need a desire to play and have fun.

Safety concerns

Look for a program that progresses by age  -- younger players have lower baskets, smaller balls and courts. Injuries are generally bumps and bruises.

ART

Age to start

Any age; make sure the class is age-appropriate.

Cost

Depends on length of program, teacher qualifications, and whether art materials are included. For example, in the Chicago area a six-week class in painting, drawing, or printmaking is $68 (materials included); a five-day, three-hour-a-day fine-arts camp is $115. Art supplies can be expensive and are needed to practice skills after the class is over.

Time commitment

About an hour of class time per week plus any practice time  -- as with any activity, the more time spent practicing a skill, the better the child becomes. Some classes might have some homework.

Special skills

Depends on class level. Some classes build on skills learned in previous classes. Beginners need only well-developed fine motor skills.

Safety concerns

Make sure all materials are nontoxic and safe for children.

MUSIC/BAND

Age to start

Children should be 7 or 8 years old for piano or string lessons, in fifth or sixth grade to start band instruments, and in seventh grade for voice lessons.

Cost

About $15 per half hour for private lessons. Most instruments (even pianos) can be rented. Some programs allow a four-month rental period for about $100 for band instruments, which can be applied to buying the instrument.

Time commitment

Weekly lesson time plus daily practice time (start with two 15-minute periods daily for younger children, and build to a 30-minute practice).

Special skills

No special skills needed, but early childhood experience in a group setting encourages music appreciation. Singing or dancing with your children is also a plus.

Safety concerns

None, unless your child gets tired carrying his cello.

BASEBALL/SOFTBALL

Age to start

Five-year-olds generally start with T-ball, then progress to coach-pitch at the age of 6 or 7, and finally to kid-pitch at the age of 8 or 9.

Cost

League play is usually $25 to $100 per season; includes a team T-shirt or jersey and cap. Players need a glove, appropriately sized bat, and cleats (soccer cleats usually work).

Time commitment

Season is 14 to 24 games (usually two to three games per week) depending on local climate.

Special skills

None needed. Like basketball, baseball and softball may help improve hand-eye coordination.

Safety concerns

Make sure players are required to wear batting helmets, catchers are required to wear shin guards. Look for leagues that use softer balls and breakaway bases. There's a growing trend in some leagues for batters to wear chest guards.

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