I have heard parents and caregivers complain about how busy they are driving their children around to their different activities. Some of them express annoyance that they cannot go on family trips because of the sports schedules. Yet, we the parents and caregivers are the ones over scheduling our children with sign ups for all these activities. Here I'm going to discuss the benefits of organized activities, the downside to organized activities, and how to find the right balance. over scheduling\
What are the benefits of organized activities?
Many children benefit from structured activity. If they did not engage in organized activities outside the home they would spend most of their time inside the home watching tv, playing video games or on a wireless device. Screen time in moderation is ok, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day (this includes social media, computers, wireless devices, video games and television), yet according to the American Academy of Pediatrics children spend an average of seven hours of screen time per day. So for some children this may be the only time, other than school, that they spend time exercising and connecting face to face with other children and adults, which is critical for social-emotional development. Organized activities can also be a safe place for children to spend their after school time while their parents are working.
Children also learn valuable skills through organized activities. Not only do they learn the skills required for the organized activity they are engaged in, but they also learn teamwork, problem solving, leadership skills, negotiating skills, grit and persistence, all of which are necessary for future success.
After listing all these potential positive outcomes from engaging in organized activities it is hard to make an argument against organized activities. But, there are some potential drawbacks if children are overscheduled. The questions are what are those downsides and how do you find the right balance for your children?
What are the potential downsides of organized activities?
When a child is engaged in too many organized activities the cost to the child and the family life can be great. There are only so many hours in a day and with most elementary school age children attending school for an average of 6.64 hours per day (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008), not including commute time and additional time spent completing homework, this leaves little time for unstructured play, sleep and family connections.
- Children need time in between adult-directed activities, such as school and organized activities, to engage in child-directed play. Through informal child-directed play, children discover their passions, develop problem-solving skills, and practice social skills such as negotiating.
- Children also need time to sleep. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends 11-12 hours of sleep for children ages 5 to 11. When a child has an organized activity until later or has to stay up late to do homework because they were at soccer practice til 5, they will likely go to sleep later than what is developmentally appropriate. Lack of sleep negatively impacts mood, behavior and learning (American Academy of Pediatrics).
- Children also need time to connect with their family. The busier a family’s schedule is, the less time they have to spend quality time connecting with each other and this quality time is needed for children to develop empathy and emotional regulation skills.
Finding the Right Balance:
There is certainly a place for organized activities and the many benefits discussed earlier in this article. But, how can a parent/caregiver figure out what is the right balance for their family?
When a parent/caregiver is making a decision about whether to sign up for an organized activity, it is important to consider a variety of factors.
- Is your child developmentally ready for the activity? Do they seem emotionally and physically ready to participate in the activity?
- What is the motivation for participating in this activity? Does your child enjoy the activity or are you trying to live vicariously through your child or raise the next Michael Jordan?
- Know your child. Do they enjoy organized activities and being busy or do they prefer a slower pace and need more downtime at home to engage in quieter activities?
- What is the cost to the family? Will engaging in this activity put undue strain on the family’s finances? What is the time commitment of the activity? Will a younger sibling's early bedtime be compromised because they are staying up later for their brother's activities? Will there still be time for family connection, especially for sit-down family meals? Will there be enough time to complete homework and get enough sleep?
- How many other activities is the child currently involved in?
Signs that we are Over Scheduling Our Children:
This is a personal decision for every family to consider carefully. But, here are some signs that it is too much and you have reached the tipping point.
- The family spends little or no time at home together. This may happen more during the teen years because of the increase in independence and social interactions based on their developmental stage, but in elementary school it should not be the norm.
- Children have difficulty fitting in time at home for homework, reading, sleep, quiet activities.
- The parent and/or the child begin to forget things like practices, homework, game times because there are too many things to remember on the schedule.
- Everyone is exhausted.
- Your child is losing interest in the activity and it has become more of a chore than something they enjoy.
If you or your child fit any of the fields above than you need to answer some of the Finding the Right Balance questions again. Honestly with your partner ask yourselves, "Are we over scheduling our children?" Keep your child involved in the decision making of their own after school activities; they're old enough to have a say. However if you have an over achiever on your hands, you may have to limit them to two activities a season.