After-school activities: How much is too much?

Is your child ready to add sports, dance or lessons to their schedule? Are they necessary? Here are tips to help you decide how to schedule your child’s out of school time.

Boy in baseball uniform

The options for after-school activities are endless! Sports, dance, gymnastics, scouts, music, karate, yoga, the list goes on and on. Many parents feel pressured to start their children in activities at a very young age to further their success in that activity later in life. In many activities or sports, there is a predominate feeling that if your child hasn’t started by late elementary school it might be too late for them to catch up and play that sport or engage in that activity in high school. At the same time, parents also worry their children are overscheduled, overwhelmed and overtired, especially when you add in the increase of academic pressures.

A 2015 American Journal of Family Therapy study found that children are receiving three times as much homework as recommended by educational experts. Combine excessive homework and the demands of a busy after-school schedule and it’s easy to see why parents and children feel the pressure to find the right balance for their child.

Michigan State University Extension offers the following tips as you decide how to create an appropriate and realistic schedule for your child.

Allow time for play. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents provide lots of time for children to engage in free or open play. The importance of free play has been well documented and children need time for play where they are leading the activities and not being lead or instructed by adults. Plan for downtime at home when children can relax and play. For individual families, this time can look different, but trying to have one evening during the week with no activities and one weekend day open for family and friends is a good goal.

Listen to children’s feelings. With so many after-school options available, it’s important to identify what you and your child hope to gain from participation. Building leadership skills, exercise, making friends, having fun or learning a new instrument are all examples of reasons why children choose to participate in activities. Think about the activities your children are enrolled in and why they are in those activities.

Be mindful that their perception of an activity may change from year to year. Perhaps one year your child is managing being involved in soccer, ballet and piano just fine, but the next they’re complaining and feeling stressed out. Not all stress is bad stress, and in fact, small amounts of stress help children build resilience. However, when a child is under frequent or heavy stress, this can become harmful. Make sure your child has enough time in their day to complete homework, eat, rest and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Consider cost and time commitment. After-school activities vary widely in terms of cost, length of time of practices and daily and weekly time commitment. What works for your family? Once a week for the whole year? Three times a week for an eight-week season? Are there rental fees or required sports equipment? Can you handle the transportation commitment or do you have trusted friends or family to help with transportation? All of these factors will influence how feasible this activity is for your family.

Schedule family time. When planning your weekly schedules, set aside time to spend with your child without electronics. Go for a walk, play board games or enjoy a friendly game of basketball. Take your child with you to run errands, cook together and enjoy meal times as a family. Research has shown that spending time together as a family can have many benefits. It’s not a set amount of time or special outings that matter, but simply having time to connect with your children and their feeling like they matter to you.

A 2007 UCLA study found that it was the normal, routine family times that provided for family bonding. The researchers found that “everyday activities (like household chores or running errands) may afford families quality moments, unplanned, unstructured instances of social interaction that serve the important relationship-building functions that parents seek from 'quality time'."

There are many benefits to participation in after-school activities. Research has consistently shown that children who participate in activities after school have improved academic grades, study habits and behavior at school. Additionally, children who frequently participate in extracurricular activities have been shown to have lower obesity levels and are less likely to engage in violent or problematic behavior. It is worth the parental stress to make arrangements for participation in after-school programming, just be sure you’re finding a balance that works for your family.

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