These are the times of competitive parenting.
Every parent wants to bring up a child who is more talented and accomplished than all the other kids.
And parents are eager to sign their children up for as many extra-curricular activities as possible – as soon as possible.
But over scheduling is a reality. Over scheduled toddlers and overscheduled pre-schoolers who have too much to do are a reality in today’s world. And the ill effects of over scheduling is now well documented. Children who have too much to do are stressed and likely to burnout early in life.
The research that shows the adverse effects of too many extracurricular activities is frightening. And it naturally terrifies loving parents who want the best for their children.
Parents who are signing their child up for various classes and activities then ask several questions about extracurricular activities in my Parenting Workshops. And in this article I am answering some of these questions.
Should children go for extra-curricular activity classes?
The answer is “Yes”. Extracurricular activities are good for children for the following reasons
Activities help the brain grow
The child’s growing brain is capable of making millions of connections per second. But what connections are made and how many connections are made – depends on the experience the brain receives. When your child participates in various activities she/he makes more brain connections much earlier in life than other children
Activities help children build motor skills
Children are growing their muscles and bones and learning to coordinate and use their muscles to do various tasks. The more activities your child is involved in – the more practice her/his muscles get – and the better they become.
Activities build social skills
Activities help children build motor skills – Activities build social skills – Going out of the familiar surroundings of the house and meeting and getting along with strangers is a necessary part of participating in activities. When your child participates in activities she/he quickly learns the art of making friends and interacting with adults.
Also read How to reduce screen time for toddlers
9 things to remember when you choose an extra-curricular activity for your kid?
Choose an activity that interests your child
Do not push your child into an activity that you are interested in or you think will be best for your child. If your child is interested in football don’t force her/him into a dance class just because you think dance is a better activity. That may cause complete disinterest in all future activity classes
Expose your child to the activity informally first
If your child wants to learn hoola hooping – first let her/him learn at home from friends and by experimenting. This will give her/him a feel of what the activity will feel like and also allow her/him to cross the initial difficult phase of learning without pressure. Then think of enrolling her/him for a formal class
Arrange for trial classes at first
Children below 12 are in the “sampling years” of their life. They should be allowed to experiment and discover which activity they want to excel at by the time they reach their teens. Do not force your child to continue with an activity that does not interest her/him anymore.
If you are putting your child in an art class do not pay for the whole year of classes in one go. This can cause a lot of unnecessary stress if your child does not like art or does not get along with the teacher. Ask for a trial period. But make it clear to your child that because you have paid for 3 months of classes she/he will have to complete those 3 months of classes before thinking of quitting – because that will be a fair trial.
Help your child through the initial difficult phase
Every skill will have an initial difficult learning phase. It is important to help children to overcome that challenging phase otherwise they will not like any activity. So if your child is learning to play the piano – get involved and help your child to learn to read the basics of music. Once your child has mastered the basics and is able to read and play simultaneously – step back and let her/him manage independently.
If your child is not interested don’t force her/him
Once children have got through the rough patch – they should begin to enjoy the activity. If they are still reluctant and disinterested – allow them to leave. Just because your child swims very well she/he does not need to continue swimming and become a swimming champion. If her/his interest lies in singing – allow her/him to leave swimming and learn music. Understand that there are only limited hours in the day and your child can only focus on one thing at a time.
Focus on your child’s health first
Children must have enough time to sleep, eat and breathe. If the activity is taking away time from these vital functions – immediately stop the activity. If the chess class is held 30 kilometers away and needs you to wake your child up at an unearthly hour and just rush her/him through the morning routine in order to get there on time – you should rethink the activity – no matter how good the class is. Tears and tantrums are never worth it. And the adverse effects of overscheduling a child far outweigh the benefits any of these activities provide.
Make sure your child has time for free play
Every day your child must have some time to do “nothing” and some time for free play when she/he decides what she/he wants to do and how. If your child does not have this kind of time – do not sign her/him up for any extracurricular activity. Whatever the child learns on her/his own when no one is teaching her/him and no one is expecting a certain level of performance – is what ultimately helps her/him to stand out from the crowd. No class should occupy the time your child needs to discover her/himself. If you are always saying “Hurry up. We are getting late” – you need to rethink your child’s extracurricular activity. Extracurricular Activities should keep your kids busy but not too busy. Is your child too busy? Its time to change the activity then.
Do not allow the activity to become competitive
In many cases – as soon as a child starts picking up an activity – the teacher and parents get excited and start believing that the child is a prodigy. They sign her/him up for various competitions. And begin to expect wins and prizes. While winning competitions is wonderful – there is chance that your child may lose the competition as well. If your child enjoys this competitive atmosphere and you as a parent are relaxed about winning or losing – it is OK. But if the child begins to exhibit signs of stress and does not want to participate – do not force the child to compete. A child who was very good at tennis recently came to me with his parents. They complained that he was becoming rude and irritable and difficult to live with. We finally realized that the stress of winning the tennis matches for his academy in addition to performing well in school that was so much that he was just not able to cope. And that was making him snap at his parents all the time. Giving him a break from the matches helped him become the lovable boy he previously was.
Choose a teacher with the right attitude.
There are various kinds of teachers. Always choose a teacher who loves the craft that she/he teaches and also loves teaching. Do not choose a teacher who only wants to teach children who are good at the particular activity and can win competitions and accolades for the institute. Stay away from teachers who emphasize competition and winning. Choose a class that welcomes beginners. And a teacher who stresses on developing skills, encouraging teamwork and having fun.
Can too many extracurricular activities be a problem?
Extracurricular activities are good for your child only when they do not cause stress. But several times – extracurricular activities tend to become rather stressful. This may be because of the physical demands that it makes on the child and the family. Or because of the stress caused by unreasonable expectations from the child.
Going to a class especially if it is an exclusive class held far from the house involves a lot of travel. This results in life becoming becomes rushed for the whole family. There is no time to relax. All the time is spent getting ready for the class and driving to and from the class
Once a child starts learning something she/he is loaded with expectations by the parents and the teacher. The teacher wants the child to become a star performer and pressurizes her/him to perform. And the parents who are putting so much time, effort and money into the activity want their child to learn as much as possible – as fast as possible. And this causes toxic stress for the child.
How can you tell if your child needs to drop and activity?
The whole point of extracurricular activities is to bring in fun, happiness and relaxation. If the activity is causing stress for you or your child – it is time to rethink your participation in the activity.
Activities are good for children – but restricting them to a particular activity very early in life or insisting on specializing in a particular activity very early may not be beneficial.
Playing too many hours of a sport can cause injuries. Playing too many hours of piano can keep the child isolated and not allow her/his social skills to develop.
How many activities should a child have?
A child should spend no more than 3 days a week going to activity classes.
Remember that organised sport – like a football class – is also an activity class and cannot be considered play. Free play is when a child is free to decide whether she/he wants to play or not, what she/he wants to play, with whom she/he wants to play and for how long. Free play is essential for your child because it teaches decision-making and social skills. Both of these are essential and cannot be compromised.
Also read How to bring up a creative child
At what age should a child start extra-curricular activities?
Every child is different and different children mature at different times. Do not compare your child to another child who is learning an activity and excelling at it. Your child may be learning something much more valuable by himself at home – that you are not noticing. And this may be much more important for her/him than something a class can teach.
In general children must begin extracurricular activities when they are able to handle their self-care tasks on their own.
Your child should be able to feed her/himself put on her/his clothes and shoes on her/his own before you send her/him out to learn to play football or the violin.
Extracurricular activities are not about learning skills to showcase to the world and win prizes with. The purpose of these activities is to allow the child to discover her/himself while discovering the world. Balance and fun are the key words to be kept in mind when choosing and pursuing an extracurricular activity.