Extracurriculars: How many is too many?

Is your kid overbooked? Here's how to determine what and how many things your kid should be doing outside of the classroom.

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Trying to arrange a playdate for my five-year-old isn’t easy.

“Tuesday is karate, soccer is on Wednesday and on Friday we have swimming. How’s Thursday?” asks the other mom.

“We have Spanish.”

I’m happy with my minimalist approach to extracurriculars, but hearing a laundry list of other kids’ activities does sometimes make me question whether my own child is doing enough—or if he’s missing out or falling behind his peers.

As a parent, you’re constantly trying to find the right balance between keeping your kid busy and away from screens and overscheduling them. You want to expose them to a variety of experiences, but you also want to nurture their passions and talents.

Here are some things to consider before you enrol:

Cost

Kid’s activities are expensive. Leif Davis* in Barrie, Ont., has his nine-year-old daughter, Kendall*, in as many dance classes as the family can afford (three per week), plus Brownies. Davis spends around $700 per year on costumes alone—with additional fees for lessons and competitions. (Kendall’s older sister, 13-year-old Karsen*, takes dance, as well as figure skating.) But he feels it’s worth the cost. “It’s not about me spending money to make them a better dancer or figure skater or athlete,” he says. “It’s about me spending the money to try to help my child be a better person.” He values the teamwork and camaraderie Kendall learns through dance classes and competitions, and wants to keep her busy instead of having her spend all her time on a device. To manage the expenses, the family spends less on vacations and luxury items, like new cars and appliances. Extended family also helps with the occasional dance outfit and things like snowsuits, allowing the Davises to enrol their children in additional classes—but they would love to do more.

Time

Two kids jumping on a trampoline together My kids began to thrive the minute I stopped scheduling themChristina Rinaldi, a registered psychologist and a professor of educational and clinical child psychology at the University of Alberta, suggests parents think about their quality of life. Ask yourselves, Are the kids OK with being rushed, eating on the go and doing homework in the car? What does that mean for the family? Can we support this? Parents might consider opting to put their kid in a recreational activity if the competitive stream is going to limit them from doing other activities or make them feel overextended. “It’s a different lifestyle and a different commitment,” says Rinaldi.

Interest

Learning about what your child’s interests are takes trial and error. Davis first enrolled Kendall in soccer and skating (like her big sister), but after noticing her inclination toward music and movement, they signed her up for dance classes, where she showed advanced abilities in acro dance.

And if those interests change, that’s OK. “Passion isn’t set in stone at age eight,” says Rinaldi. Children are always evolving and developing, so while it’s important to encourage their favourite activities, recognize that there’s a good chance they may change.

Planning

Think about what’s important to you and what might be useful for your child to know as they get older, suggests Donna Volpitta, director of the Center for Resilient Leadership and co-author of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting. She explains that when we’re born, the brain is like a jungle—your experiences and the things you learn leading up to age 10 or 11 are the first stage of development, forging neurological pathways through that jungle. Starting in adolescence, certain neurons that haven’t been used begin to be pruned, making it difficult to forge new pathways. For example, many adults wish they knew how to play an instrument, so they’ll enrol their kid in music lessons early on to help ensure those neurons get used.

While it might be tempting to enrol your kid in All The Things to prepare them for any eventuality, it probably isn’t practical (see Cost and Time) nor necessary, says Rinaldi. Kids will learn a lot of these skills at school, at home and during time spent with friends and family. “It doesn’t always have to be in a formalized extracurricular platform.”

Importance of free play

A lot of development is best nurtured outside adult-directed activities, says Volpitta. The prefrontal cortex—where executive functions like problem solving, decision making and self-control happen—develops best during unstructured free play. When kids are allowed to make up their own games, navigate social interactions unaided and be in control of what they do, they develop those high-level cognitive skills. “There’s a cost to not giving them that downtime, and it can be pretty significant,” says Volpitta.

If the goal of extracurricular activities is to help your kid develop into the best version of themselves, it’s important for parents to remember that overscheduled can lead to overstressed—for the whole family. “It’s always a cost-benefit analysis,” says Volpitta.

* names have been changed

Read more:
Should you let your kids quit extracurricular activities?
3 everyday life hacks to help busy families stay organized

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