Soccer practice at 4:30; piano at 5:15; swimming lessons start at 5:45, 6:00 and 6:10. Extra curricular activities are great, but are they necessary?
When I was growing up, I did a little of everything: piano, ballet, art, drama, skating, soccer, swimming, Girl Guides, and there are probably a few others I'm forgetting. My mother wanted me to have as many opportunities as possible to find the 'thing' that could be my thing, something that clicked with me, or that I had a natural talent for. However, despite years of lessons, practicing, rehearsals, and recitals, the only thing I excelled at was being perfectly mediocre at everything.
Now, as a mother of an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, I want the same opportunities for my children. I don't want a passion or potential talent to be untapped because they were just never given the chance. Yet, I feel for them when their lives are so structured, so rushed, so by the clock. And - let's be honest, here - I feel for ME, too: the rushing, the money, the taxi service I've become, the fatigue. Yes, I will do it for my kids if it is what's best for them but there must be a way to cull the benefits of extra-curricular activities and also allow my children - and me - free time, right?
I spoke to some experts with professional credentials or mother street cred to get their takes on the pros and cons of extra-curricular activities for kids.
The Extras of Extra-Curriculars
"I think it's really important for kids to have a pursuit that falls outside of friends, family and school, like an instrument, a sport, a hobby- something that is both engaging and challenging." says Peaceful Parenting expert, Sarah Rosensweet. She explains that one of the biggest values in these extracurricular activities is that they help create gritty kids that are full of passion, perseverance, stamina, and aren't afraid of hard work.
Along with grit, activities can help them develop resilience and a growth mindset - the idea that even if they can't do something YET, they will get better if they keep at it.
"Adding a lesson, club, team, or new skill can be very beneficial to building a child's self esteem," says Child Development Specialist Carolynn Darrell.
Jennifer Henderson has a 7-year-old daughter and sees another benefit to her extra-curricular activities. "As the mother of an only child, I feel extra-curricular activities are important from a social perspective.
The Value of Nothing
"To lead healthy growing lives, kids need enough rest and they need to play," says Rosensweet. "If their after school time is filled up with lessons or practices, and then they have to do homework on top of that, they won't have time to be kids. Having time to do nothing, time to play, and time to connect as a family are priorities that should be protected."
"Kids today are way over scheduled. They're moving from one scheduled activity to the next and their time for free unstructured or child-led play is diminishing," says Darrell. "Overscheduling kids in adult-led play or activities can have some damaging and drastic effects on their development. They're not playing in the ways that promote self-confidence, self-regulation, imagination, creativity and problem solving skills. Yet, these are the exact same skills they will need most as they grow up into adulthood."
Striking the Balance
Emily Howell has two children, ages 6 and nearly 8. She finds it a challenge to hit the right balance. "We do more than I would like with our kids but it's mix of what we think are musts, like swimming and tutoring to catch up on reading skills, and their wants (Scouts, dance, and hockey). It's hard to balance each kid's wants with the family schedule, too. I make sure we include unscheduled time in the week as well, and we try to do the activities during the week so weekends are more relaxed."
Polly Vandenberg has three kids, ages 6 years, 4 years, and 21 months. "We have a maximum of two activities per kid per week," she says. "I still want to have time to go to the park, explore the neighborhood, walk the dog, and make mud soup in the back yard. I want time for spontaneous play dates, crafts, and boredom."
"We try to limit the number of extra activities our kids do because, frankly, school is tiring enough," says Lisa Lebeer, mother of two boys, ages 5 and 8. Along with some year-round activities, Lebeer rotates other activities depending on the season: baseball in the summer and, next winter, curling and hockey.
"For us, no class is taken that falls during dinner time, or pushes bedtime," says Vania Sukola, mother to two children, ages 7 and 5, and a Registered Psychotherapist who focuses on Attachment-based Development Psychology. "After being at school all day, it is important to unwind, to relax, and put their feet up. School already is very busy and is an organized routine. After school is a time to be more gentle on ourselves."
Ultimately, the balance isn't about the right mix between scheduled or unscheduled time - it's about balancing the extra-curriculars with different aspects of your children's lives that are important to you, such as family dinners, outdoor play, or game and movie nights. "It's important to create a balance between fostering what children value and love with what is important as a family unit," says Sukola.
"There is no right or wrong way as every family and child is unique," says Lynne Newman, and Occupational therapist and Simplicity Parenting Family Life Coach.
"It also depends on whether an activity it is meaningful to the child."
"Give kids lots of unstructured and unhurried time to play, be bored, to connect, and to foster their own creative outlets," says Sukola. How does this look in practice? It's simpler than you might think.
"Just let them play!" says Darrell. "Play with them. Let them play alone. Let them play out of sight. Kids need down time and time to process what is happening in their worlds. They do this through play. We need to give them the tools and time to do this."
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