Striking a balance between down time and busy schedules

November 2, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, Middle Years

Our local community center’s winter activities catalog arrived the other day in the mail. By the look of it, you would think it was the much-coveted holiday toy catalog because of the way my children have earmarked it, tagged pages, and circled activities. They even color-coded and put their initials next to what they circled so I would know which child wants to take what course. (Just in case I couldn’t figure out their complex color-coding system.)

As I flip through the already tattered catalog, I learn that both my kids want to sign up for nearly every activity ranging from tap and ballet to cooking to robotics. My initial response is happiness. I’m thrilled my kids are interested in trying new activities. Yes! I feel like I’m winning as a parent by raising such well-rounded individuals.  But then reality sets in once I look at what it means to be involved in so many after-school and evening activities. There are simply not enough hours in the day nor days in the week to do everything. And, I’m pretty sure in addition to the physical limit there is also a mental limit–for both kids and parents. (I’m exhausted just looking at the list.)

There are lots of positives as well as challenges to having kids participate in extracurricular activities. Evaluating both sides might help parents, and kids, make more thoughtful decisions about the best way to manage schedules and free time.

  • Research shows that children who are involved in a variety of activities have the opportunity to meet, work with, learn from, and enjoy many different people with different opinions, skills, and knowledge.
  • Being involved in extracurricular activities can help children develop many important life skills such as responsibility, time management, perseverance, team building, and motivation.
  • There is often a diverse array of after-school or evening activities that children might not otherwise experience in their daily lives. For instance, karate, a different language, music lessons, drama/plays, art classes, athletics, etc.

On the flip side:

  • When parents are rushing their children from one activity to another, sometimes the learning benefit is lost because there’s no time to reflect or practice the new skills being taught.
  • A busy schedule often crowds out the time children need for free play which builds imagination, creativity, and innovation.
  • Busy schedules can impact overall health. For example, shuttling from one activity to the next and eating dinner (perhaps from a fast food restaurant) in the car, extending bedtime to accommodate activities, or enrolling in lots of sedentary activities could result in forming unhealthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits which can negatively impact a child’s ability to learn, his or her physical growth and development, brain function, and overall health.

Knowing all the benefits to extracurricular activities makes me want to say “yes” let’s sign up for everything now, but is that really the best answer?

Like many parenting-related questions, there isn’t one easy answer. Some kids and families thrive with a lot of activities, and other simply do not. Therefore it’s common for parents to be a little confused when it comes to deciding how many activities their children should be involved in. Realistically, however, over-scheduling children does have the potential to impact your family in a negative way especially since there’s so much research that supports the importance of down time for children.

“All children, but especially young children, need time to play and explore in an unscheduled, unstructured environment to help them harness their creativity, imagination, and social problem-solving skills,” says Alvin Rosenfeld in his book The Overscheduled Child.

So when the advice is to strike an activities balance for kids and family, parents need to understand that the balance is different for everybody and every family. For instance, before I schedule activities for my kids I factor in the amount of time they’ll need to complete their academic requirements (homework, daily reading logs, practicing their instruments) then compare that to the time commitment of the activity. (Don’t forget to factor in travel time.) Before submitting any enrollment sheets I show my kids what their calendars will look like if they add more activities and clubs. And, yes, we use a color coding system on the calendar (each child gets a color) that way they can actually see what it means for them. It can be overwhelming but it also helps them prioritize.

Here are some other tips from experienced parents who have been at the center of overscheduled lives. This is what they have to say:

Schedule one, maybe two, activities per season

Some activities are year round, such as scouting, 4-H, religion classes, to name a few. Therefore, depending upon the demand and time constraints of those type of activities you could also schedule another activity that is seasonal. For example, if you are interested in getting your child involved in sport you could schedule something for the fall and spring. Don’t worry about having a plan for every season, or even every weekend. This additional activity will be enough to stimulate your child’s development and encourage a healthy lifestyle without over-burdening him or her–and the entire family.

Let your children have a choice

Parents naturally want to select activities their children will enjoy. But, sometimes what parents think their children will like isn’t always the case. It’s hard not to sign your child up for piano lessons because it’s what you did as a child, but it’s best to let your child have a say in whether or not that’s something he or she really wants to do. If they dislike a club or activity selected for them they will probably not benefit from the experience and it will only frustrate the parent. Also, research shows that when children have a say in their social calendar and activities they are more likely to remain committed, even if it’s just for that session or season. It’s a good lesson for them to learn that quitting is not always a good option, especially when they have a team relying upon their participation.

Allow for (and encourage!) quiet time

Allow some portion of the day or week or month where your children don’t have any activities. Yes, that’s right, schedule a blank in the calendar! Time to simply reflect on life and explore are essential components of a child’s development. One parent of three children (two in middle school and one in elementary school) says she makes it a priority to have a large meal every Saturday (sometimes it’s breakfast, sometimes it’s dinner) where they all have a chance to talk about things happening in their life, the world, etc. After the meal they reserve an hour or two for downtime where electronic devices are turned off, books are put away, and they aren’t distracted by anything. Often times she find her kids (ages 7 to 12) playing outside on the long-forgotten swing set or making up their own games.

Tara Mitchell is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She lives in Malta, NY with her husband and two children. She’s an avid collector of vintage, fine and fashion jewelry and enjoys throwing themed parties.

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