Multiple sports and activities give kids the opportunity to explore different interests and to discover what most appeals to them. But these compound activities mean increasing costs for different uniforms, equipment and instruction. Since we parents have no idea what sport or extracurricular activity our youngsters will ultimately latch onto, we want to minimize these exploration expenses. Better to save the big investments for those interests that become part of your child’s regular schedule. So how do you offer your child an introduction to lots of options without breaking the bank?
Joining an organization that offers a variety of choices can make classes inexpensive, yet expansive. The YMCA or Jewish Community Center can provide introductory classes and teams for just about any sport, including soccer, basketball, swimming, judo and gymnastics. Your membership gives plenty of value if you sign your kids up for the courses. Add taking your own classes or using the facilities, such as exercise equipment and the pool, and you really stretch that membership to be a great value. Community recreation programs provide a great local option for so many different activities. In my town the recreation center sends out catalogs twice a year offering classes from drama to dance to science to languages. These classes can give kids a taste of what is out there to pursue. Most schools, even with cut-backs, have a school band and/or orchestra for the elementary and middle school years, which don’t expect students to have any knowledge of the musical instruments in which they have an interest. Instead, they ask the kids to come early to school or stay later for lessons. Since music lessons can run up to $50 or more for a half hour, this school option saves you money until you know that your child has a musical aptitude and the discipline to pursue instrument training. Finally, many churches sponsor basketball, soccer and baseball leagues with volunteer coaches. These leagues can be really fun for children as they learn how to play the sport. There’s no pressure for intensive training, winning or limiting playing time. All the kids participate with an eye toward enjoying the experience and learning rules and tactics of the game.
When joining teams, parents should consider recreational levels to start. These teams are generally very local, small, run with volunteers, and therefore inexpensive. If you’re a parent who played a particular sport in high school or even college, you may want to get your player started right away in the sport at a high level, if possible. However, keep in mind that whatever drove your passions may not be what drives your child’s. So dip the toes in slowly, giving your child a chance to experiment and either develop his or her own passion or — and you have to be prepared for this — reject it. It’s much better to know early on before investing a great deal of time and money. On the other hand, make sure your child completes his or her commitment before giving up on a sport. As I’ve mentioned before, the reason a child rejects a sport may have nothing to do with the sport. It may be a conflict with another player, teasing, or even a team parent who criticizes them. So, be sure to determine why your child wants to quit.
There’s no reason your child has to have brand new equipment in order to play a sport or participate in an activity, especially when starting out. Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul and other charitable resale services can be a great place to get things like cleats, shin guards, helmets, catcher chest pads, etc. Likewise, there are sports resale stores that provide lots of great equipment. We got our first set of golf clubs for the boys from Play It Again Sports, and the boys used those for years. They never developed an interest in playing golf on a regular basis, but when friends asked them to complete a foursome, they were ready. Musical instruments can be rented, usually with a "rent to own" option. So if your child decides to continue playing, none of those rental payments were wasted. Another great option can be services such as Ebay or craigslist. You should always be able to find a good selection of equipment on these services, most at bargain prices. Once your child selects his or her primary activities, you can even use these services to find great, gently used equipment for a bargain. Obviously, as your child develops further, you’ll want to get the best equipment possible, but you can make that transition as the activities narrow and specialize.
Finally, whatever you do, don’t overload your child with options. Kids do need time just to run and scream with their friends. Try to create "seasons" for the activity choices. Your child could do drama, choir and basketball in the winter; soccer, pottery and trumpet in the spring; swimming, tennis and science in the summer; and football, cooking and gymnastics in the fall. By taking little nibbles of each experience, you don’t overwhelm the kids, and you allow them to yearn to return to some of their activities in place of others. As their friends develop their own interests, they will influence the choices our kids make. So eventually around ages 10 to 12, our kids will cultivate which extra-curriculars they want to pursue based on their passions, the chance to bond with friends and the fun they have.
As they specialize, they will minimize the options but, ironically, increase the expenses. You can serve as guide on this journey, but give them enough room to make their own choices. If any choice can’t fit in your family’s budget, then don’t be shy about saying it’s off the table. As disappointed as they might be, kids will eventually shift their interest elsewhere. Even to this day, both our sons become wistful about the sports they didn’t choose, but Bryce just got a professional contract in soccer and Robbie, who is short, has had great success in soccer — where size is less important than in football and basketball, his other sports interests. Since most kids won’t go beyond youth sports, it’s important that they enjoy what they are doing, feel an important part of the team and have pride in their accomplishment. And that goes for anything they decide to do, whether it be singing or taking astronomy classes. Let it be joyful and confidence building.