Parents can sometimes get carried away with their efforts to expose their kids to as many enriching experiences as possible. But too many activities can be overwhelming. The trick is striking the right balance between bored and exhausted, and that point will be different for every child.
How to Keep a Healthy Balance Between Activities and Free Time
My six-year-old daughter’s activities consist of an hour per week each of ballet and soccer, and that suits her just fine. But other children happily take on much more. Eight-year-old Ben from Richmond, B.C., is one of them. In addition to playing basketball once a week, he is a competitive summer swimmer who puts in a couple of hours in the pool on weekends during the winter. He also plays hockey, spending an hour or two at the rink three to five days a week for practices, games and skills training. It adds up to a big time commitment, but Ben’s parents ensure he has enough activity-free evenings to balance things out. “Ben’s hockey [schedule] this year is really heavy Friday through Monday, which is good and bad,” says his dad, Ryan Cowell.
“It means that on the other days he can have downtime, a playdate or do something else, which is great.” Betsy Brown Braun, a California-based child development and behaviour specialist and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me (HarperCollins), agrees that unscheduled time is vital for kids. “I think at the very least, a child must have one school day (and that’s Monday through Thursday—I don’t count Friday because there’s no school the next day) when there is nothing scheduled,” she says, adding that kids need downtime at the end of the day to process what they’ve learned at school and elsewhere.
Schedule Homework Times
Like Ben, eight-year-old Sara of Pembroke, Ont., also has a busy schedule. A competitive figure skater, Sara practices four out of five weekday evenings as well as a couple of hours on Saturdays. With a commitment like that, how does she fit in homework? “She leaves school at 3 and she’s usually on the ice sometime between 5:30 and 6,” explains Shari Kosowan, Sara’s mom and her head coach. Kosowan starts practice with her other students at 4, so most days Sara does homework at the rink until it’s her turn to hit the ice. She completes anything not finished the next morning before school starts at 9:30. Ben also does his homework in between the end of school and his ice time. While he gets most of it done at home before heading out, sometimes he does homework en route to practice. Ideally, children should do homework in a quiet, designated spot at home that allows for deeper thinking and concentration, says Debra Wren, a Grade 2 teacher at Earl Beatty Public School in Toronto.
“Many children would not produce the quality of work teachers would hope to see when they are in a noisy environment or are rushed.” Cowell and Kosowan agree that education comes first—something their kids know. “We made sure Ben understood that school is number one,” says Cowell. “If you’re not doing your homework and schoolwork, then you’ll miss practices or tournaments, or we may even have to pull you off the team.” Doing well in school is necessary if Sara and her sister (also a skater) want to maintain their current skating goals and schedules, says Kosowan, adding that she discusses Sara’s schedule, plans and goals with both her teacher and the principal at the beginning of each school year.
Too Much Isn’t Always a Good Thing
Even kids who love their activities can experience extracurricular overload. Beyond keeping an eye on grades and whether a child is scrambling or failing to finish homework, Brown Braun says other signs include not participating fully in family time, appearing fatigued and not having time to do other things, such as playdates. Wren agrees, adding that if a child isn’t sleeping well or appears anxious about school, those may be other signs.
Ultimately, we want our kids to be well-rounded individuals, but no one benefits from taking on too much. Brown Braun recommends starting with one activity and, if that’s going well, possibly adding a second. But that’s it. If your child is actively involved in family life, has strong friendships, enough time to daydream, is getting good grades and enough sleep, and most importantly, is having fun, chances are she’s achieved balance.
Dory Cerny quit piano—her only childhood extracurricular activity—at 12, but made up for it by starting ballet in her 20s.
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