How extra-curricular activities can help support mental health

Kids playing soccer

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, Royal Far West Clinical Psychologist, Alexandra, explains how extra-curricular activities can help children with anxiety.

It can be challenging to encourage a child with anxiety to attend a party, go for a run or do mindfulness meditation—although these are all likely to improve their emotional wellbeing—but there are alternatives that can help ease the burden. Organising an activity like dance classes, choir or Scouts, can be a more motivating, fun way to give your child access to a variety of supports that they can benefit from.

Team Sports

We know that using our muscles helps keep the body calm, doing cardiovascular exercise can reduce the adrenalin rush that comes with heightened anxiety (and improve mood), and doing activities involving hand-eye coordination can improve concentration skills and be a form of mindfulness practice (as it requires our attention to be present-focused to perform the activity successfully). Most team sports will involve all three of these, as well as the added benefit of social connectedness and belonging to a team, which we know also benefits our brains.

What if my child isn’t keen on team sport?

There are many reasons why team sports won’t suit all children – but there are alternatives. For example, individual sports such as tennis, karate or swimming can be preferable to team sports for some children. And dance or a youth-friendly yoga class can be a nice option for those who just aren’t that ‘sporty’!

Child learning piano

Music

There is a large body of research supporting the neurological benefits of singing, playing an instrument and listening to classical music. These benefits include:

Promoting oxytocin secretion (linked to improved mood, immunity and physical healing),

Reducing blood cortisol (linked to reduced stress),

Activating many important brain regions at once (associated with improved focus, executive functioning and learning skills),

Being a more interesting and holistic way to practice mindfulness (due to the amount of concentration required to perform music),

Being an avenue for emotional expression that is not purely language-based (which can improve emotional regulation and mental health),

Improving social cohesion if playing or singing in a group, and

Being a way to increase motivation, which can support mental health and functioning in many areas.

How do you access music lessons and groups?

Speak to your child’s school about what options their music program offers. If there isn’t much available through school, ask them what children’s music activities are happening in the community. If there aren’t many – dance lessons are another way to give your child the benefits of music, which still uses many of the skills described above.

If cost is a barrier, some teachers offer group classes or choirs at a lower cost, and instruments such as guitar, ukulele and African drums can usually be purchased at a low cost online (and free lessons can be accessed on YouTube). Even switching on ABC Classic FM in the car to listen to Beethoven or Mozart on the way to school can be beneficial.

Other community and cultural activities

Other activities are often available in the local community that support social cohesion and the development of important life skills. Scouts and ADF Cadets are examples of groups that meet regularly to learn important life skills, such as orienteering, camping, bush survival and leadership. For children who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, reaching out to local elders can be a powerful way to connect children to country, culture and community, and improve their sense of belonging and identity, which have all been linked to better youth mental health.

Managing significant mental health concerns

While all the above activities can have significant mental health benefits, should you have significant concerns about your child’s mental wellbeing, consult your GP to get a referral to a Psychologist, who can work with you and your child to figure out the best way to support them.