Extracurricular activities such as band, debate, or soccer are optional activities offered by the school that complement the academic curriculum and enhance the school’s sense of community. These activities provide settings within schools for adolescents to develop facets of their personalities that contribute to their emerging independence and their eventual assumption of adult roles. Extracurriculars offer opportunities for leadership, travel, skill development, and social engagement and integration in the school. There is growing evidence that adolescents who are involved in extracurricular activities are generally happier and healthier than their uninvolved peers. In particular, research suggests that extracurricular participation positively influences adolescents’ psycho social development, problem and risk behaviors, relationship formation, and, perhaps most importantly, their academic achievement.
Since James Coleman’s classic study The Adolescent Society, researchers have recognized that schools serve as the primary location for adolescent social development. In schools, adolescents meet friends, internalize values, and develop interests and talents. Often, extracurricular activities play a major role in these processes. Because adolescents choose to engage in extracurricular activities, these activities can become important defining experiences for their budding sense of identity. In fact, there are close ties between adolescent participation in particular activities such as sports or debate and self-reported identity, as, for example, a “jock” or a “brain” (Barber et al. 2001). These self-reported identities then shape other aspects of adolescents’ lives, such as drinking and marijuana use, or college matriculation and graduation. Additionally, extracurricular activities may provide a forum for the development of adolescent gender identity. Athletic extracurricular activities for males and cheerleading for females may contribute to the development of traditional gender roles because of the emphasis on competition found in sports as opposed to the emphasis on appearance found in cheer leading (Eder et al. 1995). Though girls are significantly less likely to participate in team sports, those who do may experience a non-traditional gender socialization that includes skills that may help them succeed in domains of life outside of sports.
The status hierarchy of extracurricular activities within the school can also shape how extracurricular involvement impacts students’ lives. In some schools there is substantial overlap between the schools’ learning objectives and officially sponsored extracurricular activities. In these schools, extracurricular activities become another way for schools to promote their academic goals. Another common emphasis in schools is on athletic competitions such as football: athletes in these schools may find that their athletic identity is central to their sense of self. If the school sponsors events such as pep rallies that increase the visibility of athletes, being an athlete may also come with more social status and increased popularity with peers (Eder et al. 1995). Though extracurriculars can reinforce or create adolescent status hierarchies, they can also provide adolescents safe alternative contexts in which they can explore identities that do not match the popular norms of the school. For example, nerds may take refuge in extracurriculars that allow them to be themselves and not worry about adhering to popular student norms (Kinney 1993). Thus, extracurricular activities serve an important social function for the school. They diversify the school experience for adolescents and allow
students to feel integrated and connected to the school. They also provide a physical and social location in the school where school policies and priorities can shape the adolescent culture.
Because keeping students engaged and enrolled in school is an important policy issue, the role of extracurriculars as a tool for improving students’ achievement has been considered seriously in the academic literature. This body of literature has demonstrated that extracurricular activities have an important impact on adolescents’ academic achievement. Even after controlling for socioeconomic status and family background, adolescents involved in extracurricular activities do better in school and have more positive attitudes toward their education. Students who are extracurricularly involved have higher grades, attend school and complete their homework more regularly, and are more likely to select college preparatory coursework. They also feel more confident in their academic work and both plan and realize higher educational goals (like attending college) more than students who are not involved in extracurriculars. In low class and middle class schools, where less than half the students go on to 4 year colleges, identifying as an athlete is particularly strongly associated with higher grades and higher educational aspirations. Though it is possible that in this body of research better students are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities (rather than the extracurricular activities improving the students who participate), similar results have been obtained in longitudinal studies controlling for relevant behaviors prior to participation. This implies that extracurricular activities to some extent do improve the academic achievement of participants. In addition to improving the achievement, being involved in extracurriculars can be crucial for students who are seriously struggling in school, as it can dramatically reduce their likelihood of actually dropping out.
In addition to better integrating students into schools, extracurricular involvement can improve students’ experiences during the sometimes difficult adolescent years. Students who participate in the extracurriculum tend to make better life decisions particularly with regard to high risk behaviors. They take fewer risks sexually and are less likely to engage in delinquent or problem behaviors. Generally, students involved in extracurriculars are less likely to drink, smoke, or use drugs, although some research has shown that students who participate in team sports (such as football) consume more alcohol. Perhaps even more importantly, adolescents who participate in extracurricular activities tend to exhibit better mental health as indicated by higher self-esteem and healthier self-concept. They also tend to report greater self-efficacy and more control over their lives, an important developmental step toward a healthy adulthood. Furthermore, involved adolescents generally experience higher levels of life satisfaction than their peers who do not participate. These positive influences do not necessarily end during adolescence. Extracurricular involvement can shape adolescents’ adult lives, producing more conscientious citizens in early adulthood. For example, extracurricular participation has been linked to greater civic involvement, such as voting and volunteering.
While much research has focused on how participation in extracurriculars improves adolescents’ developmental and academic trajectories, participation in these events also provides an invaluable opportunity for adolescents to form social relationships with adults. During a period of adolescent development that involves large gains in independence from parents and families, extracurricular activities offer an institutionally structured opportunity to engage in extra familial relationships. These activities provide opportunities for adolescents to connect with adults who can guide them on their academic paths and serve as advocates if necessary, helping to maximize the school’s ability to meet students’ needs. Research has shown that adolescents involved in school based extracurricular activities do tend to seek out educational and occupational advice more frequently and from a wider range of adults than their uninvolved peers. These sources of engagement with encouraging adults outside of the house hold are particularly important for at risk adolescents, who generally lack access to such social support. In addition, extracurricular activities can strengthen the social ties between students, parents, and the school. When parents and school personnel know one another (thus increasing the social capital available to adolescents within the school), the school can more effectively realize its developmental and academic goals for students.
Just as extracurricular activities structure relationships between students and adults, they can shape who adolescents are exposed to within the school context. In particular, extracurricular activities provide a potentially unique opportunity within the school structure for exposure to students from different backgrounds. Unlike classes which tend to draw students with similar academic histories (and thus from more homogeneous family back grounds), extracurricular activities draw anyone with talent or interest. This opportunity, the influence of institutional support, and the equal contribution and contact of a group of individuals combine to position extracurricular activities as a conduit by which to promote positive race and ethnic relations. However, this potential is limited by race and gender differentials in individuals’ likeliness to participate in extracurriculars and how participation affects students’ academic and personal trajectories. Further, how integrated extracurricular activities are may vary by school, and in some schools opportunities to participate may be extended to only a small number of students.
Because extracurricular activities appear to have a resoundingly positive role in adolescent life, these inequalities in participation are of concern, as they imply that involvement works better for some adolescents than for others. Although across race and ethnic groups, girls’ participation in sports is increasing, their rates still lag behind those of boys. The reverse is true of non-athletic activities and school and community service activities: girls participate in much higher percentages than boys (American Association of University Women 1999). Girls are underrepresented in activities that encourage exercise, which has important implications for health, while boys are underrepresented in non-athletic activities, which can play an important role in their academic achievement. In addition to being stratified by gender, participation rates differ based on socioeconomic background: students from families with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to participate in extracurriculars, particularly sports, academic clubs, and music. School size and school sector (public or private) also influence the rates and effects of participation.
Though the majority of research on extracurricular activities is based on the experiences of US adolescents, there is some research that suggests leisure and extracurricular activities are important cross nationally (Verma & Larson 2003). Internationally, these activities seem to serve a similar developmental purpose: they provide adolescents with opportunities to gain skills, to integrate into social groups, and to develop personal interests and talents. Though there are some commonalities in participation across countries (the popularity of sports is almost universal), the national context does shape the role of participation in adolescent life. For example, in Japan where achievement and competition are important elements of the national culture, extracurricular activities are viewed as an additional way for students to cultivate discipline and become well rounded. Because of this motivation, participation tends to add stress to Japanese adolescents’ lives and is linked to negative emotional states. This is contrary to findings from the US and Europe and points to the importance of international research on extracurricular activities and adolescent development.
Academic achievement and engagement, health and risk behaviors, and formation and maintenance of social relationships have been linked to high school extracurricular activities. Students spend many intense hours in extracurricular settings during their adolescent years, rendering these contexts crucial to understanding how adolescent society operates in schools and how experiences in extracurriculars influence adolescent identity and behavior. Though these generally positive forces have been widely explored in the literature, there is still much that researchers do not know. For example, extracurricular participation may not be stable over the high school years. Students may experience a trajectory of extracurriculars; they may focus on drama one year and basketball the next. How do these trajectories affect the developing adolescent? Continuing to explore adolescents’ dynamic experiences in extracurriculars over the course of the middle and high school years should be an important goal of future research. An improved understanding of participation in extracurricular activities will enable policy makers to more effectively harness the school as a powerful force in shaping adolescent culture and outcomes.
- American Association of University Women (1999) Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children. Marlowe, New York.
- Barber, B. L., Eccles, J. S., & Stone, M. R. (2001) Whatever Happened to the Jock, the Brain, and the Princess? Young Adult Pathways Linked to Adolescent Activity Involvement and Social Identity. Journal of Adolescent Research 16(5): 429-55.
- Coleman, J. (1961) The Adolescent Society. Free Press, New York.
- Eccles, J. S., Barber, B. L., Stone, M., & Hunt, J. (2003) Extracurricular Activities and Adolescent Development. Journal of Social Issues 59(4): 865-89.
- Eder, D., Evans, C. C., & Parker, S. (1995) School Talk: Gender and Adolescent Culture. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Kinney, D. A. (1993) From Nerds to Normals: The Recovery of Identity Among Adolescents From Middle School to High School. Sociology of Education 66(1): 21-40.
- Verma, S. & Larson, R. (Eds.) (2003) Special Issue: Examining Adolescent Leisure Time Across Cultures: Developmental Opportunities and Risks. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 99.