Extracurricular activities

How to find a balance between keeping the kids busy and making sure they have enough downtime.



Every August, I mutter the same thing to myself: I will limit my children’s extracurricular activities. Really, honestly, truly, I will.

But this year, my pledge has a greater sense of urgency. Last winter, I would rush home from work every Monday, take my 5-year-old to her figure skating lessons, make a mad dash across town to pick up my twins (one from piano and the other from guitar lessons) and then rush back to the rink before the buzzer signalled the end of the skating lesson. And all this before preparing dinner or helping the kids with homework!

I shudder just thinking about the sheer exhaustion and constant stress from chauffeuring tired, hungry children through snow-clogged city streets. I also remember the mounting costs of activities and equipment, the skates outgrown midway through the year as well as the lost piano books and guitar picks.

So this year, I promise, we are going to choose wisely and rationally. No more weeks when each one has four activities plus skiing on Saturdays. Instead, they can do an activity at school once classes end because that doesn't involve extra driving for me.

They must continue the music lessons they begged for and committed to a few years ago. Having already invested all this time, money and effort, we are sticking with it for another year. (Fortunately, they love music and are inclined to agree.)

So how do they pick one last activity when so many beckon? It’s made complicated by my decision that all three daughters will have to choose something they can either do together or which takes place on the same day. I’ve also strongly suggested we do this activity or activities with a friend, so driving duties can be shared.

There are tough decisions to be made and my older daughters are already anxiously wondering how to say no to the many things they love to do: pottery, drama, horseback riding, swimming and gymnastics. My little one rails against the (perceived) unfairness, protesting that she wants to try the drama classes her older sisters were allowed to do.

I try and reassure them they have the rest of their lives to try out new activities. I remember my own love of pottery, which I had to put aside when my belly full of twins became so big I could no longer reach the wheel. After they were born, I was too exhausted and too busy to even think about it. But now that the kids are older, I recall I had every intention of returning to it one day. Or oil painting? I’d always wanted to go back to that. And my husband has expressed interest in taking formal guitar lessons, after years of picking out tunes on his own.

It occurs to me that there is no need to squeeze everything in all at once. And I’m assuming the vast majority of computer animation experts at the National Film Board and Pixar did not begin their careers with an after-school course in grade one. If my kids do it all now, what will they have to look forward to later?

Moreover, perhaps it’s time the adults tried out some of these amazing courses for ourselves. It may not make life less hectic, but oh, what I’d give to get my hands all covered in clay slip once again during an evening out by myself!

Definitely something to think about. Why should the kids have all the fun?

Six tips for selecting extracurricular activities

Choose with your child: Just because you like organized sports — and all the neighbourhood kids seem to be doing them — doesn’t mean your child will. Don’t even think about committing the money or time if it isn’t something your child wants to try. After a day at school, their patience levels for something they didn’t request will be way down.

Consider their energy levels: Some kids will want to run around to get their wiggles out after a day spent at a desk and others will be pooped, preferring something quiet like art or music. Also, consider your own energy levels – after a day at the office or running household errands, will you have what you need to survive the locker room at the local pool with a slippery, wired preschooler?

Collaborate with friends: Wherever possible, split the extra-curricular duties with another parent. It doesn’t take much more effort to get three or four kids to the arena and into their skates, especially when the other mom or dad will come at the end to deliver all the kids home.

Balance cost: Extracurricular activities can get expensive. Look for used sports equipment at specialty sporting goods stores or on Internet sites like Craigslist. Some musical instruments, such as violins or guitars, come in age-specific sizes, and there is a bustling market online in trading and selling these items. Buying blocks of lessons can also be more cost-effective in some cases, and some places will give you a discount if you refer other customers.

Think about logistics: After all, you need to consider your own workload and the rest of the family. Will you have time to get dinner on the table? Homework done? Will there be any unstructured downtime in your weekday life? Perhaps you’d prefer shifting some activities to the weekend, when both parents are around to help out. Is it easier to find a piano teacher to come to your house rather than going to theirs?

Try something new or continue working on the same skills: Think about whether your child wants to try a variety of new things each year, or whether you want them to concentrate on building skills with one or two activities. There is something to be said for both options, but by the end of elementary school, it’s nice if kids have at least one thing they’ve gotten good at outside of school, whether it’s karate or guitar.
 

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