The vast array of extracurricular activities offered to school-age children can be a headache for kids and parents both. They can help kids develop talents and passions and learn how to push themselves. And, of course, we want them to look like well-rounded, accomplished kids to college admissions committees. But we don’t want to run them ragged or turn them into stressed-out automatons. Even parents of young children, who aren’t thinking about college yet, are feeling the pressure.
After school activities have also stepped in to supplant the unsupervised “free time” we’re no longer comfortable allowing our children to have, says Rachel Cortese, a former New York City schoolteacher and speech-language pathologist at the Child Mind Institute. And there is a consensus that children should have the opportunity to experiment with a variety of activities in well-delineated blocks—”structured free time,” as it is called.
But how much should parents push their kids to engage—and how much is too much?
In general, says Cortese, “kids tend to do really well when they have structure, and part of that structure is having an afterschool schedule.” Educational and learning specialist Ruth Lee also extols some well-known benefits of getting kids together outside of the classroom for more activities—especially the physical kind. “It gives kids social interactions,” she says, at the same time helping them “get out some of their energy so they can settle and go back to their work” after school. This is particularly important, she notes, as schools are cutting back on recess more and more.
For older kids, after-school activities can be very important as protection against more dangerous activities, says clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Rooney—particularly if parents are busy at work or with other children. “Once kids get into middle school and high school,” she says, “the hour or two after school is the highest risk time for dangerous behaviors like substance abuse, because it’s the largest chunk of time when kids are unmonitored.”
And of course, more recreational activities outside of school, whether its sports, dance, theater, science, give kids another arena to demonstrate competence and mastery, which is important for their self-esteem and identity development—especially for kids who might be struggling in school.
But what about overscheduling? It is not to be taken lightly, says Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of, among many others, The Case for the Only Child.
For one thing, Newman warns that mastery might suffer. “If you are spreading yourself too thin you’re not going to be able to focus and get really good at one thing.”
“A lot of people see a list of all the great things that are being offered,” says Lee “and they sign up for everything and then they realize it’s so unrealistic with their time constraints and all the schoolwork that they have.” That’s not good—as Newman notes, it’s no fun for kids “to have so many things that they have to drop out.”
An overload of extracurricular activities also doesn’t bring the perceived benefit a lot of parents and kids are looking for: a good-looking college application. “What they’re really looking for is applicants who are well rounded and have focus. You can see they are pursuing a goal and they really like what they are doing,” Newman says. “And not just dipping their hand in this and that and the next thing so they can fill out more lines on the application.”
How many activities are too many? “Seven,” jokes Dr. Jerry Bubrick, director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. But really, it’s too much when afterschool activities start interfering with a child’s life. Bubrick notes that in the case of intensive commitments like sports or theater, even one activity can be too much.
Bubrick has a pretty simple calculus for how much is too much. “Can you still do your homework? Can you still get 8+ hours of sleep each night? Can you still be a part of your family? Can you still hang out with your friends? If the answer is ‘no’ to one or more of these, then it’s too much.”
Back to School: What’s a parent to do?
- Know your child: “Kids come to us with different predispositions,” Cortese says, and the best activity “depends on the individual child.” And when it comes to scheduling, kids respond better to different kinds of structure. “One kid who is highly scheduled might do very well and another might need to dial it back,” says Cortese.
- Consider other types of activities: Parents shouldn’t forget that children can also benefit from self-directed activities, albeit in structured blocks of time. “Sometimes there’s not enough emphasis put on the importance of independent work time,” Cortese says, “and giving kids the time and the place to think for themselves, be creative, and access their own internal resources.”
- Step back: “Most children find their level and their interest if they have the time to do it,” Newman says. “My advice to parents is always to understand your child and see what limits he or she has or doesn’t have.”