How many activities should kids do?

Deciding on the right number of extracurricular courses was all about trial and error for my family



Back-to-school time for kids can mean hard choices for parents. Should the kids sign up for diving or dancing? Skating or sculpting? Then there are the practical issues of coordinating schedules. Who will chauffeur little Zachary to basketball while mom is lacing up Zoe’s skates? There may also be worried glances at the checkbook as fees start to add up. 

While extracurricular activities offer kids a chance to broaden their skills in non-academic subjects like sports, music, dance and drama, parents need to find a balance that will not overtax the child’s schedule and the family budget. Before signing up for anything, parents should consider how a particular class fits in with a child’s overall lifestyle, interests and personality. 

Our family’s experiences have taught us that the right mix of courses offer opportunities for kids to develop new interests in a less formal environment. For example, our older daughters took a digital photography course and learned to see the world through new eyes as they travelled across town with their instructor snapping images of the cityscape and its details. They also loved learning how to creatively alter their images with programs like Photoshop, and have applied these skills in homework projects at school.

When making our decisions, it was important to me that they do some type of physical activity as there are many sedentary hours spent at school.

I also figured they would get a boost of self-confidence over time as they learn new skills. Our youngest daughter made a new set of friends when she participated in a basketball program, and developed an impressive new confidence in her spoken French when she took part in a city gymnastics program. Her new francophone friends put her language skills to work in a fun way that was completely different from the French lessons at school.

Because the activities occur outside of school, there’s no pressure. Because there is no “marking” per se, these activities are less rigid and more playful than school. One of our daughter’s favourite activities over the years was her Funky Feet dance lessons. Owner and instructor Livia Avrith prides herself on teaching movement and expression in an open-ended way to encourage creativity, explaining that “we don’t correct how movements are done so children never get the feeling that they aren’t doing something right.”

Finding the right activity means taking into account children’s energy levels and personality. If they are wound up after school, they might enjoy the calming atmosphere of a visual arts class. Kids with excess energy after a day concentrating on their books might need physical activity such as hockey or figure skating. Some kids are team players while others are non-competitive by nature, so bear that in mind when deciding between team sports and individual activities. Performance arts like drama, dance or choir groups can be good for kids who are shy and offer an appropriate outlet for those always seeking an audience.

Whatever choices you make, be careful not to overload your schedules. One year, I somehow booked my then 5-year-old daughter into skating lessons while her older sisters had piano in another neighbourhood. Every Tuesday for three months, I cursed my poor planning as I raced to get one kid safely on the ice (praying she wouldn’t need to go to the bathroom mid-lesson), dropped her sisters off 10 minutes away, went back to get her before the skating was over, and then retrieved her sisters. I think I aged several years in my hurried drives across wintry streets, and I’m pretty sure I was in a foul mood by the time I got everyone home for dinner.

We’ve also learned that even when kids beg for more activities during sign-up time on a sunny summer day, the dark, cold, rainy afternoons of November tend to significantly dampen everyone’s energy levels. You will all be glad to have some unstructured time after long days at school and the office. Older kids in particular tend to need more time for homework, and you will face difficult decisions about whether to skip the hockey or dance lesson for more time on a science fair project or book report.

In our family, two activities per kid seems to be the perfect number (scheduled on concurrent days so we have some family evenings together without competing activities). After all, they are meant to be fun and enriching, not a huge burden on the family’s time and finances.

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