It starts with a group text from mom: Football registration is Tuesday. Who’s in? You will answer, then hesitate. Aren’t gym classes enough? What about the fact that my daughter is already enrolled in Taekwondo? Or does she need more, MORE?
Are there benefits to loading children with extracurricular activities? Or should they just roam the neighborhood playing in nature and solving their own boredom problems? We spoke to three people – a therapist, a tennis coach, and an early childhood education program specialist – to get the DL on what’s worth it…and what isn’t.
The activities are worth it, but the number one goal should be team spirit
Yes, you want to expose your kids to different activities from an early age to help them discover passions and develop skills, experts agree, but these activities are really a gateway to something that matters much more. : teamwork and a sense of belonging, says Donna Whittaker, vice president of curriculum and education at Big Blue Marble Academy.
“It’s about getting your kids to find what makes them happy and what they really enjoy doing,” she says. But along the way, it’s important that they have the chance to experience socialization and collaboration and to practice focus and following the rules.
Sport is obviously a logical starting point: “Engaging in sporting activities is beneficial for young children as they are able to develop key physical skills. [as well as social ones]says Nicholas Nemeroff, coach and director of tennis operations, at Court 16 in Brooklyn, New York. But this type of collaboration can also come from any extracurricular activity where children work together. Think: a choir, a Lego camp, a debate team, anything with a group component.
Beware of applying too much pressure
Repeat after us: Activities are not about success, especially throughout primary school. Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, who recently launched resources specifically for parents, is clear about never pushing your kids too hard. “This period of life is all about exploration, fun, and bonding,” Daino explains. “It is important to expose your child to activities, but also to understand them: if you know [your child’s] not “athletic”, focus on their real interests, even if they are different from yours.
Beware of overtime
Daino argues that downtime is just as crucial as activity for brain development. “Having a busy schedule can be exhausting and also takes away space for [kids] to figure out what they like as they jump from activity to activity every day,” she says. Conclusion: You want your child to have room to decompress, doing things like hanging out with friends, reading a book in their room, or even just hanging out with a little Minecraft.
That said, everyone is different. “Parents need to identify what works for both their child and their family,” says Whittaker. Sometimes it’s not the child who is overwhelmed by the schedule, it’s the parents! Either way, it won’t be a beneficial experience if it’s too much.
Allow them to resign, within reason
Let’s say your child signs up for gymnastics, but doesn’t like it and wants to quit after two weeks. Whittaker says you should stick to your guns and get them done regardless of the original deal, maybe a season or a semester. After that, be flexible and give them the chance to try something else because, as Daino says, “If your child is miserable in an activity, none of the skills can be learned easily.”
Also remember that it takes time and a certain level of skill for activities to become a long-term passion. Encouraging your child to stick with something he clearly likes, but needs time to improve, can be beneficial.
Ok, but what if my child really doesn’t want to do any activities. Is it bad?
Probably not, says Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor and author of the parenting book. The family business. While she maintains that extracurricular activities can be a childcare solution (a value that shouldn’t be ignored) or can have tangible life benefits (e.g., a swimming lesson “so they don’t drown”), there isn’t a ton of elementary school activities that have a huge impact on success in life.
For example, she notes that there is a correlation between participation in sports at an early age and commitment to physical activity that lasts into adulthood. But she also notes that there is no evidence that sport thwarts the risk of childhood obesity. (In fact, kids who exercise a lot tend to eat more post-workout snacks, which can have the opposite effect.) other activities, including playing Tetris!
Like the experts we spoke to, she touts the social-emotional benefits of activities, but it’s important to remember that this type of team-building doesn’t have come from the baseball or drama club. As long as your child has regular opportunities to connect and work on something with their peers, this can be a start.
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