How many? How often? Which ones?
By Karen Plumley
Fall will be here in a few short weeks, and school has already begun for most children in New Hampshire. Now is the time when parents start the arduous task of picking extra curricular activities for their kids. There are so many exciting choices: sports, music, dancing, gymnastics, swimming and Scouts, as well as a multitude of academic clubs and courses.
How do parents figure out what their children might be interested in, and what will keep them engaged once the commitment has been made? And how do you prevent burn out in the long run? Expert parents with years of experience weigh in.
How do you choose an activity?
With so many activities available for children, how do parents go about choosing just one or two? The length of any commitment is a very important consideration. Being able to sign up for a short program (monthly, for example) will make it easier on the child if he or she decides the activity isn’t right for them.
Location is also a key factor, especially with multiple children. Tammy Andrew is a mother of two young children from southern New Hampshire. She has both her kids enrolled in music lessons, and although they are learning different instruments (piano and drums) at different studios, the locations are less than a mile apart and thus conveniently arranged.
Also, cost, more than ever, is another critical factor when choosing an activity.
Observing what sparks a child’s interest during their down time is a great way to decide on a particular activity. While balancing the checkbook or making dinner, pay attention to what the kids do to occupy themselves. Do they play with a toy piano or paint pictures? Kick around a soccer ball in the yard or do cartwheels? Early on, Tammy Andrew noticed that her oldest daughter was a kinetic learner. They enrolled her in dance when she was only 3, “to give her an outlet for her energy and a way to learn through her learning style,” and it was the perfect choice at just the right time.
However, Kirby Rooks, a dad of four children, age 13 through 30, from Roswell, Ga., offers a sound warning. “We let them try a lot of different things at first. This is important because sometimes as parents we attempt to put our children into specific activities that we would enjoy, and that can be a recipe for disaster.”
How many activities?
All children are different, and while one child may be happy taking part in several activities per week, most parents agree that unstructured playtime at home and with friends should not be compromised.
“We limit our extracurricular activities to one per week per child,” said Gail Klanchesser, mother of four from Newington. Her children, ages 2 to 11, keep her on the go. At one point her family was out seven evenings each week, and weekends. When she realized they never had any time to relax as a family, she reprioritized the schedule. Limiting the activities has provided the kids with more time to enjoy spending time with each other, and allowed Klanchesser’s family to save money on unnecessary activities, and take-out meals, as well.
Roxana Nunez is a mother of one 17-year-old daughter who grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in Florida.
“When she was younger, my daughter was enrolled in two summer camps and modeling lessons. She was very busy and not happy with the time spent away from home,” Nunez said. When she stopped working and her daughter was finally able to enjoy some time off at home, it was clear to Nunez she was happier.
“She never complained or said anything about her full schedule, but her attitude and demeanor said plenty,” Nunez said. “Sometimes we need to listen to our children, and look for the nonverbal cues.”
Is your child overloaded?
What behaviors will children display when they are overloaded? It can be hard to tell, especially in small children who may not yet be capable of verbalizing their stress.
Jill Hart is a mother of two children and owner of Christian Work At Home Moms from Bellevue, Neb. Limiting her children, ages 4 and 7, to one activity per week is also a goal in her family. When they start showing signs of being overtired, angry, or moody, or even when the children experience unexplained appetite changes, “it is time to sit down, talk about it, and re-evaluate their schedules,” Hart said.
Another warning to look out for is a loss of interest in every day activities, especially school.
Is quitting an activity acceptable?
Most will agree it is unwise to force children into a sport or lesson they do not want to do.
However, what do expert parents do when their children want to quit halfway through, especially when their absence could affect others or if the activity has been a significant financial sacrifice?
“Kids can be impulsive, and at times they only want to do things when they feel like it. But they need to learn that making a commitment means something. I make them go, and once they get there, they are nearly always happy that they went,” freelance writer and psychotherapist Lisa DeLuca of Long Island, N.Y., said. DeLuca’s children, age 8 and 11 are limited to one activity per week and therefore, the commitments they make are taken very seriously.
When DeLuca observes one of her children is ready for an added commitment, she usually tries to make that activity a productive one.
“Volunteer work is a wonderful family activity,” DeLuca said. Her children have participated in volunteer work with a nonprofit organization, helped repair a damaged landscape, fostered homeless kittens and planned/hosted yard sales.
How do parents keep children engaged?
Rooks from Georgia suggested that a parent become involved with an activity in order to keep the child engaged.
He has found that his involvement coaching his son’s baseball team, and being a den leader in Scouts has provided an opportunity to bond with his children.
“The one year I didn't coach my son in baseball he did very well. But after the season was over he came to me and said he really enjoyed baseball better when we did it together. This is the best reason for extracurricular activities,” Rooks said, pointing out how rewarding it can be if a parent gets involved. “It re-enforces their doubts, misgivings and relieves stress,” Rooks said.
Pelham resident Kerry Keleshian, mother of three children, said at times her kids get tired and need a break from an activity. Keleshian does not limit her kids to one extracurricular per week, but never lets her children skip one in order to watch TV or because they are not in the “mood.”
However, she has a unique solution when she notices signs of tiredness or crankiness in her kids: She has on occasion “forgotten” about a meeting. This gives her children some much-needed down time.
“I feel that two nights and one weekend activity is plenty for my 8-year-old [her oldest],” Keleshian said. If there is suddenly several days in a row of meetings, taking a day off in between works well for her family.
Extracurricular activities can be beneficial to children, and today there are so many to choose from. These structured activities will keep youngsters challenged and in a safe environment, and can be very rewarding socially. But it can easily get out of hand when a youngster is overscheduled, even if she seems to be thriving.
Free time is also a valuable part of a child’s development. During these times, kids learn to entertain themselves, be creative, enjoy their families and neighborhood friends, and appreciate all the little things they already have.
Karen Plumley is a freelance writer and mother of two from Pelham. She is also the author of the Daily Activities for Kids blog at www.dailyactivitiesforkids.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.