Extracurricular Activities: Necessary for Success or Burdens to Bear?

When your child was little, afternoon activities were oh-so-simple — nice long naps, leisurely strolls in the park, and spontaneous playdates with nearby friends. Every day was a hazy Christopher-Robin-esque adventure filled with the whims and wishes of childhood.

Now that your little one is well — not so little — afternoon activities threaten to take over your family’s schedule four to five days a week. But the high-level logistics it takes to keep everyone at the right place come with a price tag both financially and emotionally.

So how do you make decisions about extracurricular activities? What is the right balance between unhurried time with friends and family and organized activities which offer extra instruction in sports, music, art, or community service?

Here are several points to consider, some wisdom from the experts, and a few poignant questions for keeping your family in a healthy place.

Two Schools of Thought

There are two schools of thought about extracurricular pursuits. Like banks of a fast-flowing river, each side views its position as essential for a healthy childhood. While neither is 100% right or wrong, it’s important to consider the positives and negatives associated with both.

In one camp, you have families who spend every afternoon, and most weekends, traveling from event to event and lesson to lesson, exposing their child to a wide array of people, sports, and opportunities. The children seem to love it genuinely, and the parents are willing to commit the time, money, and effort it takes.

These families see tremendous benefits in their child’s pursuits.

Benefits like helping their child:

  • Develop skills outside of the classroom
  • Put down screens and get some exercise
  • Learn time management
  • Pursue natural interests with like-minded children
  • Grow in knowledge of sport, art, music, etc.
  • Build friendships with others outside routine rhythms
  • Mature in character as they face challenges and loss
  • Learn from passionate teachers, coaches, and community members

Because of these benefits and more, it was no surprise that a May 2018 study from research group Taylor and Francis, discovered that the majority of children — 88% — took part in organized activities four to five days per week, with 58% doing more than one in an evening. Extracurricular activities are extremely popular and offer both short-term and long-term benefits.

A word of caution, however, for sports-loving families — if the motivation for all that running around is to land a collegiate scholarship, you may want to take a look at the latest statistics on how many high school athletes actually make it to the college level.

Another school of thought believes childhood is brief and too many scheduled activities may harm a child’s family time, sleep schedule, and academics — and sometimes it’s the parents, not the child, driving the extracurricular craze.

Ned Hallowell, a child and adult psychiatrist and author of the Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, says that when parents over-do it, kids suffer. Hallowell says parents should use common sense when thinking about what activities their kids can handle.

“Some are great, too much is a curse,” he told Quartz, noting that childhood is supposed to be about “discovery, joy, time to dream and wonder, to get into mischief, to fall off your bike, make-a-friend, lose-a-friend, get one back.”

So how do you decide where your family sits? Thankfully, there’s a happy middle.

A Happy Middle

Between the two camps, there sits a happy middle — a place where your parental motivations are in check, your child is fully rested, and your entire family enjoys the proven benefits of extracurricular activities without succumbing to peer pressure and fear.

Here are some guiding principles from experts to help you find that happy middle.

  • Kids need the same amount of unstructured time as structured time (David Elkind).
  • Kids need playtime, downtime, and family time every day (Denise Pope).

Armed with these principles, let’s consider a few questions to help you sift the pros and cons of adding an event to your child’s after-school calendar.

A Few Questions to Consider

When a new opportunity arises for your child, here are some broad questions to consider.

  1. Does my child want to participate in this activity? Or do I as the parent want my child to participate in this activity?
  2. Do I feel pressure from other parents or family members to have my child in this activity? Am I saying yes because I’m afraid my child will miss out or be left behind?
  3. How much time will this activity take? What is the practice schedule? How long is the commitment?
  4. If the activity is for one child, what will be the impact on my other children? Will it affect bedtime or mealtime?
  5. What is the financial cost? Does this cost fit within our family’s budget and goals for this year? To alleviate some of the financial cost, could this activity be part of a holiday or birthday gift?
A Win-Win

As you take time to thoughtfully evaluate each activity added to your family calendar, those extra activities will be a win for you and your child. Your son or daughter will enjoy the benefits while not bearing the burdens of an overloaded schedule.


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