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A Great Way to Discover Your Child’s Talents

For four years when I was a child, my parents made me take guitar lessons. Because the gene for musical talent is recessive on both sides of my family going back several generations, this was a deeply scarring experience. I was absolutely awful. I had not a drop of talent and I knew it. While I’ve been in therapy for years trying to recover from the trauma, there was one thing about those years that I’m thankful for.

As pathetic as I was, I gained a real appreciation of people who were really good at playing the guitar, and at the top of my list of favorite guitarists was Doc Watson.

If you don’t know who Doc Watson was, your education has been sadly neglected, but you have one of the great joys in life to look forward to when you hear one of his recordings for the first time.

Watson was born in the mountains of North Carolina and was one of the truly great Bluegrass guitarists of the twentieth century. He lost all of his vision from an eye infection when he was two but taught himself to play the guitar in addition to several other musical instruments. His hobby, something else he taught himself, was repairing and reconstructing old cars.

When he was once asked about how he had been able to be so skilled in two unrelated activities, he explained that he believed that God gave most of us two or three things we were especially skilled at and that it was one of our jobs in life to discover what those special skills were and develop them.

It was nice of one of those skills was truly special, like being a world-class guitarist, but, for most of us, Watson felt the skills were more routine, like fixing cars, but that didn’t mean they weren’t just as special and shouldn’t be identified and developed as well.

So, how do we know what our special skills are? While this is vitally important for blind and visually-impaired kids, it’s important for all of us, and many of us go a lifetime and never really get a handle on it.

Of course, there are many ways people can discover their special skills, but there’s one that’s simple, easy, generally free or relatively inexpensive, and available to every kid – extracurricular activities.

Some time ago, I wrote about the value of extracurricular experiences in my own life in

How to Find Your Niche As a Blind Student

But today I want to expand on what I wrote then by talking about some of the really powerful evidence that has emerged since then of the benefits of kids participating in extracurriculars.

While any child benefits by participating in extracurricular activities, it is especially important for a kid who is blind or visually-impaired. They’re running a race, starting from behind, running in an outside lane, and being involved in extracurricular activities is an easy and fun way for them to help close the gap. Very few of them, however, take advantage of this opportunity.

So, what’s the evidence for the benefits of participating in extracurriculars in school?

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and winner of the MacArthur Award, what is sometimes called “the MacArthur genius award,” has studied this stuff and points to at least three things.

1. Extracurricular activities are both challenging and fun. “A few researchers have equipped kids with beepers so that, throughout the day, they can be prompted to report on what they do and how they feel at that very moment. When kids are in class, they report being challenged but especially unmotivated. Hanging out with friends, in contrast, is not very challenging but lots of fun. When kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they are both challenged and having fun. There is no other stimulus in the lives of young people that reliably provides this combination of challenge and intrinsic motivation.”

2. Extracurricular activities pay-off in measurable ways. “There are countless research studies showing that kids who are involved in extra-curriculars fair better on almost every conceivable metric. They earn better grades, have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get in trouble, etc.”

3. These benefits last over the long-term. “A handful of these studies waited to see what happened to kids later in life. These longer-term studies come to the same conclusion. More participation in activities predict better outcomes.”

“Kids who spend more than a year in extracurriculars are significantly more likely to graduate from college and, as young adults, volunteer in their community. The hours per week kids devote per week to extra-curriculars also predict having a job as opposed to being unemployed as a young adult and earning more money.” But this is only true for kids who participate in activities for two years rather than one. Persistence in the activity matters.

Finally, Duckworth points out, “These days the average American teen-ager reports spending more than three hours a day watching television and playing video games.” Additional time is spent checking social media feeds and texting.

So, there’s no shortage of time available for extracurricular activities. My impression is that these figures are at least as high, if not higher, for blind and visually-impaired students. Either way, there’s a world of opportunity for discovering unique special talents, making friends, and having fun doing it. How many other opportunities will you get in life to do all of that at once? As we start a new academic year, this is a perfect time to turn over that new leaf and get involved in extracurricular activities.

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