Extra curricular activities – how much is too much?

Eight-year-old Jacob Renfrew has an activity schedule that fills its own diary. He’s in school from 8.30am to 3pm, oonday to Friday, with an average of one hour of homework each night except for Fridays, when he brings home two library books for weekend reading.

His mum Adele, who works part time, has arranged her employment so she’s able to shuttle Jacob to and from school, and to his various after-school and weekend activities. “oonday is guitar, Tuesday is swimming, Wednesday is gymnastics, Thursday is drama, and Friday he has the evening off,” she recites. “Saturday he has soccer in the morning, and Sunday is church youth group.”

All up, Jacob has six and a half hours of extracurricular activities every week. Add that to his school and homework, and he might as well be working a full-time job.

With the staggering array of after-school and weekend activities promising to help children develop, it’s a wonder they still have time to play and sleep. But what’s an appropriate amount of activity for a schoolchild, and what’s too much?

The answer really depends on the child, explains early childhood teacher Cheryl Dennis. “The most important thing for young schoolchildren is that they’re given ample time to socialise – because in the early years, the majority of learning occurs through play.” While some preschoolers might seem happy to trot off to music class, coffee group, gymnastics and sports every week, the majority of under-fives need a significant amount of time out to give them a chance to rest, grow and explore their world without pressure.

In the early years, Cheryl urges, keep “enrichment” activities to a minimum – say, two per week – and make sure your child is doing something they actually enjoy, rather than forcing them to attend a class or activity that you think they need.

New school entrants and children under the age of 10 are in school for about 32.5 hours a week – that’s the equivalent of working four out of five days of the week. Help your child to think carefully before adding to their plate. If they seem to be dragging through the week, it’s time to look at cutting back.

During the teenage years, when your child’s body is undergoing significant physical changes and their energy levels are all over the place, let your child be your guide – but don’t hesitate to step in if you need to.

At this age, kids usually narrow down their focus to particular sports or extracurricular skills, and the time commitment involved increases to daily practices for serious students. Interests will change regularly, so don’t be surprised if your teenager suddenly wants to abandon the piano lessons they excelled at, or rebels against playing sports.

Above all, listen to your child, and check with them regularly about their workload and how they’re coping. Ask if they like the activities you’re chauffeuring them to.

If you feel like your kid is “missing out”, consider whether they’re really missing an opportunity, or whether you as a parent are succumbing to unrealistic societal pressure to turn out a “well-rounded” child. Concentrate on nurturing their talents and interests, within reason.

“Jacob recently told me he isn’t really into swimming and gymnastics anymore,” Adele says. “After this term he’s going to drop them, and when I asked if he wants to do something else on those days, he said he’s going to have a think about it. I’m not going to push him. Maybe a couple of nights off will do him good.”

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