On Mondays, you pick your child up from school just in time to get her to karate class. Tuesdays, you have a bit more time to run home for a snack before violin practice. Wednesdays are swimming. Thursdays are science camp. Once you get home, there’s still homework and reading assignments. Little, if any, of the day is spent hanging out as a family or simply relaxing.
Extracurricular activities are awesome – they’re fun, they provide good physical (or mental) exercise, and they help prevent children and adolescents from getting involved in drugs or other risky things. They also provide plenty of opportunity to develop personal responsibility, confidence, and social skills.
But is there such thing as too many after-school activities? Could children possibly learn these skills from other experiences?
The answer to both of those questions is: Probably.
Your intentions are right on – your child loves her classes, and she’s learning valuable things. But overloading a child’s calendar with too many structured activities may be placing more stress on your child (and on the family) than what is necessary. Everyone is being spread too thin these days.
Kids need more time to just be kids. And I bet you could use less time being a chauffeur.
Think back to when you were little – perhaps in elementary school. Your childhood probably didn’t consist of you being shuffled from one activity to the next, and then still having piles of homework once you got home. You likely had one extra sport or class a week, and on other days, you changed into play clothes and spent time running in the yard, coloring pictures, or pretending to be a seahorse. Maybe you ate dinner together with your family, and then still had some more downtime before bed.
That type of unstructured free play is just as vital to children’s development as the more structured activities of school and sports. Free play is the way children learn about themselves and the world in which they live.
When kids have to decide for themselves how to spend their time, they learn self-direction. When they struggle to complete a challenging task, they learn resilience. Using their imaginations fosters creativity and competence. Playing with other kids teaches them how to negotiate tricky social interactions.
Sure, the play is often silly and fun, but where did we get the idea that in order for something to foster learning, it must first be well-thought-out, goal-oriented, and controlled?
In an ideal world, children would receive plenty of opportunities to play throughout the school day. Bearing in mind that an entire overhaul in education is not going to happen overnight, there are some things you can do at home to ensure that your child gets more free play:
- Decrease the number of extracurricular activities he/she participates in – there’s no magic number of activities, and this can be influenced by other factors, such as the number of children you have and their ages and personalities. If you have two or more kids, these activities very quickly add up. Help them choose the one class they really love, and trim the others from the calendar.
- Free yourself from guilt – coaches, teachers, or other parents may express curiosity or disappointment about a dropped class, but their feelings do not reflect on you and the choices you make for your family.
- Schedule free play on the calendar – you’ll take it more seriously if you set it as a commitment instead of a simple suggestion
- Step back – it’s not up to you to direct your child’s play time. If they want to play with you and you’re up for it – that’s great! If not, let them figure out the free time for themselves.