Following is an article I wrote for Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine about finding the right balance with after-school activities. Thought I’d share it here with you all as well.
Search your school district’s “Clubs & Activities” webpage and you’ll find dozens of choices. Each week you open your child’s backpack to find a flyer about another after-school program. And there’s always a class your child’s best friend is taking that your kid can’t wait to try too. Science Club, ballet class, travel soccer, Drama Club, piano lessons, gymnastics, Chess Club, art class, Ski Club, cooking class – there are dozens of enrichment opportunities through your child’s school, the library, community center or local businesses. It’s important for our children to be involved and find activities that they enjoy and learn from, but there is only so much time in the day and so much money to spread around. By signing our children up for too much are we inadvertently doing them a disservice? How much is too much? Here are some things to consider when helping your child chose the programs that best fit their needs and schedule.
SIGN EM UP!
Our preschoolers are learning Spanish, our Kindergarteners can read chapter books and our first graders are dabbling with multiplication. While they still receive exposure to art, music and some sports during school hours, they are limited by the amount of time they get to spend in these special areas of interest in part because of all their testing requirements. Allowing our children to delve further into special subject matters after school helps broaden their horizons, open new doors and open their eyes to enjoyable and fulfilling lifelong hobbies or even potential career choices. Enabling them to try new things and experiment with a variety of activities helps them to get a feeling for what they’re good at, what they find interesting and what they are passionate about. If done right, students can use their extracurricular activities to demonstrate the sort of focus and determination that a well rounded college applicant should possess.
After school programs also offer new opportunities for socialization. Back in high school I formed friendships with classmates while participating in the annual spring musical with whom I might not have otherwise interacted. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, one out of every four students report being bullied during the school year. Getting kids involved in extracurricular activities gives them an opportunity to create another social group and can foster new friendships and minimize the possibility of bullying.
“Kids that are involved are more likely to stay out of trouble, find a positive mentor and make healthier decisions,” says Emily Farrell, a High School Guidance Counselor who was born and raised in Chagrin Falls and who now offers private counseling services and academic coaching to adolescents in Aspen, Colorado.
“Enrichment activities are perfect. The problem is we’ve lost the ability to balance them with down time, boring time,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, author of “The Over-Scheduled Child” in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. He compares overloading children to overloading our computer. It’s great to have a computer, it’s great to have software, but if you overload a computer with software it breaks down.
Kids need time to play, explore, rest and figure out who they are. Some of my favorite and perhaps most valuable memories of being a kid are the hours I spent in my yard in Omaha, Nebraska playing freeze tag and building snow forts with my neighbors or playing Barbies with my sister in the basement. Sure, structured classes can expand your mind, allow you to be creative and utilize your imagination, but so can building skyscrapers out of Legos, creating a chalk masterpiece on the driveway, or pretending your backyard is the “Deep Dark Forest.”
Too many after school activities often makes sitting down for a family meal a thing of the past. And evening sports means homework and bedtime get pushed back later and later. Study after study seems to reveal that the benefits of eating dinner together as a family are plentiful including everything from children with a larger vocabulary and higher achievement scores to kids consuming more fruits and vegetables and having reduced symptoms of medical disorders. Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and a have a better relationship with them. Fewer extra activities equals more beneficial family time.
Another disadvantage of “overbooking” our kids is lack of focus. If our kids are being chauffeured from school to ballet rehearsal to swimming lessons and then to Girl Scouts, are they really at their best in each of these places? At some point, are they adding and/or receiving any value or are they just going through the motions? They may have a competent grasp of many skills, but not be outstanding in any one of them. I believe the saying is, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
THE RIGHT BALANCE
“It’s best to find a couple of activities that you are passionate about,” suggest Farrell. “Instead of joining every club and being part of every activity, it’s good to hone in on just one or two.” For younger children ages 4 to 10 there can be more exploration. Farrell suggests that they still need to experiment and figure out which activities they enjoy.
Some parents set a limit to how many activities each child can sign up for. “One after school program per kid per session,” says Jessica Zuik, pediatric nurse and mother of two from Cleveland Heights.” “I let them choose what they want.”
Courtney Mooney, a teacher and a parent of two boys ages 7 and 4, suggests choosing activities that offer opportunities for lifelong skills like swimming, skiing, running or martial arts. “I like that they are spending the time developing their skills throughout their life.”
Every child is different. Some may thrive while being busy and others may become overwhelmed. Observe how your child reacts to too little or not enough, talk to them about their load and trust your child. On occasion ask yourself questions like:
“Does my child have enough time to do their homework properly?”
“Are they getting at least eight hours of sleep?”
“Does he/she have enough time to be with family and friends?”
Above all, Farrell advises her clients to strive to maintain a healthy balance between family, social, school and extracurricular activities.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t encourage our children to be involved in every activity so that they can show the world their talents as a celebrity singer, a professional athlete AND the mastermind of the next big invention. Through all these extra activities aren’t we really striving to help them prove to themselves that they are capable of accomplishing anything they set their mind to? Don’t we just want to teach them the value of hard work and dedication? As I help my own children chose the right mix of extracurricular activities my goal is to help them find even just one thing in life that sets their mind and their heart on fire, that fills them with joy and passion.