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Too Many Extracurricular Activities Are Bad For Our Kids

By Sandi Schwartz

When was the last time your children came home from school and just played freely in the backyard? I’m guessing that sounds like a foreign concept. You’re probably asking, “What about taking them to dance class, art school, swim lessons, soccer practice, religious school, and that tutoring session just last week alone?” 

The over-scheduled childhood culture

Millions of children in the United States feel overwhelmed and pressured because of their over-scheduled lives. In a Psychology Today article, Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap,” explains how enrolling children in too many activities is a huge problem. Parents feel like they aren’t doing a good job if they don’t sign their children up for a variety of activities exposing them to sports, culture, religion, and everything else under the sun starting at a young age. But then the children are under so much pressure to compete with their peers and achieve “success.”

I learned my lesson the hard way – but luckily early enough before a major problem developed. When my son was in first grade, I signed him up for activities every day after school. I specifically remember that he had an activity on Monday and how much stress that caused him because he received his packet of homework for the entire week that day. There were many tears during that time because he wasn’t able to start his homework until close to dinner; he worried that he wouldn’t have enough time to complete his work. We decided then that it was a good idea to keep Monday clear to ease into the school week and to minimize his activities overall.

What do we sacrifice when we overschedule our children?

Yes, we want our kids to socialize and learn new skills. However, when we over-book them, they suffer. Here are just three aspects of our children’s lives that get pushed aside when we overschedule their days.

Health

Stress and anxiety play a big role in our children’s lives today. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it’s estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety. 

Much of this stress is because children are not getting enough down time. They’re being carted around from one activity to another, unable to calm their mind and simply play. Peter Gray, author of the book “Free to Learn,” ties this lack of free play to the increase in children suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Creativity

Being creative involves having the time to explore and grow. When we’re creative, we become so absorbed in our work that we reach a meditative state of flow. How will our children have the chance to be creative if they are constantly rushing between structured activities?

Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., a developmental and clinical psychologist, believes that “…children in America are so overscheduled that they have almost no ‘nothing time.’ They have no time to call on their own resources and be creative. Creativity is making something out of nothing, and it takes time for that to happen. In our efforts to produce Renaissance children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity.”

Self-awareness

Children need time in their day to simply be themselves. This allows them to get in touch with their emotions and to ultimately figure out who they are and what they want to become. They need calm, quiet moments for mindfulness and introspection. They also need time to explore topics in depth without time constraints, curriculum, and scores. When children are involved in too many different activities, they sacrifice breadth for depth and miss out on opportunities for authentic self-discovery.

How to navigate our children’s schedules

In the end, it’s all about balance. As parents, we need to learn what our children can handle and what they want – not what we think is best for their college applications. This does not mean you need to take your children out of all their activities. Try limiting the amount of time spent in extracurricular activities and choosing them wisely. For example, we decided that baseball was not going to work for my son because it required a commitment of three days per week. We also just pulled my daughter out of a wonderful dance studio to attend dance at her school because it alleviates unnecessary travel time.

The bottom line: keep tabs on what makes your children happy and be sure they’re getting plenty of unscheduled down time.

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Multiple Extracurricular Activities are Good for Our Kids

By Cheryl Maguire

“I’m bored,” my 11-year-old daughter grumbled as she collapsed on to the couch. It was a rare unscheduled moment in her life. I cringed as I recalled what can occur when she has a spontaneous second. At the age of three, I assumed she was quietly playing with her toys only to discover the entire wall was covered with a new crayon mural. We are both happier now that she’s enrolled in art classes.

She prefers being busy which is why she partook in six different extracurricular activities this past spring. Her interests ranged from sign language class to swim team. Besides avoiding boredom (and messes) there are many benefits to having scheduled activities for your child. Research by the National Center for Education Statistics states that students who participated in after-school activities had better attendance, higher levels of achievement, and aspirations to higher levels of education.

Better academic performance

Even though my daughter was in six different clubs or sports, she received all A’s in her academic classes. By participating in extracurricular activities, a child is able to learn new skills which can then be applied to the school setting. For example my daughter was in the garden club and she used the information she learned about plants in her science class. Sports such as basketball, baseball, and football use statistics, addition and subtraction, probability, and geometry which can be applied to math class.

A number of research studies found students who participate in extracurricular activities perform better in school. Reeves studied data at Woodstock High School in Woodstock, Illinois and found students who were in three or four extracurricular activities during the year had dramatically better grades than those who participated in no extracurricular activities. Another study, this one by the College Board, found that high school extracurricular participation is correlated with higher SAT scores; SAT math by 45 points and SAT verbal scores by 53 points.

Adaptability

If a child is participating in more than one activity, they will also experience more than one coach or teacher who will have different rules and expectations. They’ll have the opportunity to meet kids with a range of personalities and interests. These interactions will teach a child how to be adaptable to multiple people and situations.

Salvortore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba’s training guide, “Resilience at Work,” discusses the importance of being adaptable. The authors found that when adaptable people lost their jobs, they thrived due to their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Being adaptable is a skill that will benefit your in school and well beyond graduation. 

Better social skills

Children will gain social skills both from the person in charge of the activity or sport and by interacting with their peers. They also have the opportunity to learn about teamwork by playing a sport or participating in a group effort like the class musical. 

In my daughter’s book club includes social time after their discussion of the assigned book. Much like a lot of grown-ups I know, even when she hasn’t read the book, she still wants to go to the club because she loves the social interaction with her peers.

Less screen time

According to Common Sense Media, the average teen spend over nine hours a day playing video games or watching TV. If children are participating in after-school activities they will have way less time to do either of those things.

Decreased risk of obesity

Obesity affects about 12.7 million children and adolescents – a figure that has remained steady for the past decade.

Participating in an active after-school activity, like a sports team, is one obvious way to help lower your child’s risk of obesity.

Use your judgement

Sometimes, even for my daughter, you can have too many activities. I’m always cognizant of her energy level. If she needs to skip an activity once in a while, I let her. Or when I noticed she wasn’t enthusiastic about going to gymnastics anymore, we both decided it would be best not to sign up for the next session. Most importantly, you want to make sure your child is happy and definitely not bored.