Balancing Kids’ Extracurricular Activities

How can parents choose the right mix?

Balancing Kids' Extracurricular Activities

Parents want their children to be well-rounded and confident, but how much is too much when it comes to extra-curricular activities?

For families across Canada, back to school also means back to a packed schedule. Eighty-six percent of Canadian children participate in at least one extracurricular activity. Many families have much more on the go.

There are oodles of options, from baseball to Brownies, from choir to crafts, from martial arts to Mandarin lessons. All of these activities offer benefits, but overfilling the calendar can be counterproductive. What do parents need to know?

The added value

Extracurricular activities give children opportunities to develop new skills, but it’s not just about learning to shoot a puck or play a piano sonata. They learn soft skills too, such as teamwork and commitment. They also develop their self-concept—what they’re good at, what they enjoy.

“They get really important life lessons,” says Cassandra White, registered psychologist and director of Rocky Mountain Psychological Services in Calgary. “When kids don’t get the part or score the goal, those are opportunities to learn how to handle disappointments.”

Studies show that children who are enrolled in extracurricular activities get better grades at school. As they get older, they’re less likely to have depression, drop out of school, or use drugs.

Take your pick

Which activities are your best bets? Something physical, such as gymnastics or skating, might be a good idea if your child is among the 93 percent of kids who aren’t getting the recommended 60 minutes of exercise each day.

“I exposed both my children to a lot of sports,” says Jane Green of Surrey, BC. “I always wanted them to have a passion they could pursue, hopefully into adulthood.” Her daughter, Jemma, 13, is involved in competitive cheerleading. James, 11, enjoys baseball, soccer, and track.

“The biggest factor I take into consideration is interest. What types of activities does each individual child express an interest in?” says Angela Prive, also of Surrey, who is balancing activities for five children between the ages of nine and 18.

Your child’s personality traits may also guide your selection. “Some kids are better off in swimming because it’s individual and that’s a better fit for them,” says White. “But some kids are so individual that I encourage their parents to sign them up for a team activity because they need to work on those team skills.”

Try it, you’ll like it

How do you encourage your child to give new activities a try? “My approach would be to invite the child to participate in a wide range of things,” says Blair Niblett, an assistant professor of education at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. “Then, let the child lead us to where they feel like they’re having the most growth and learning.” But some kids may need extra guidance. If all your child wants to do is play chess, you may need to steer them toward something more physical, and vice versa.

A young age is an ideal time to try a variety of activities. Small kids aren’t participating at an elite level, so the commitment is minimal. You might also stick to shorter-term programs. That’s worked well for Hilary Beasley’s family in Toronto, which includes Keaton, nine; Tanner, seven; and Tanner’s twin sister, Harper.

“The boys were interested in skateboarding, so they did a one-week program in the summertime. We didn’t have to commit for a whole semester,” says Beasley.

Check it out

How can you test the quality of an activity? “I would look for programs with strong leadership,” says Niblett. “I’d want to make sure the leadership is really built around a child-centred model with caring adult support.”

That may require previewing a class, asking friends and neighbours for recommendations, or speaking with program leaders.

“I’ve met and know all my children’s coaches, and I observe the coaching,” says Green. Beasley, too, took care when choosing her sons’ hockey teams. “We talked to a lot of different people,” she says. “We wanted to ensure there was a level of sportsmanship and fair play involved.”

When to pull the plug

What if the activity isn’t meeting your expectations, or your kid is begging to quit? If your child is exhausted or miserable, or the leadership is failing badly, you need to explore what’s going wrong. “Sometimes it’s just an interpersonal thing that hasn’t been addressed,” says White. “It’s important to really look and see what’s happening in that activity.”

When Beasley’s twins were unhappy at swimming lessons, she observed that the instructor’s style wasn’t a great fit with small children. “I spoke to the teacher and things didn’t improve, so I pulled them out,” she recalls.

In less serious situations, encouraging kids to stick it out until term’s end will help them learn about commitment. “We hear those stories about the kid who is just surfing from one activity to the next,” says Niblett. “I want to suggest parents be a little bit wary of that.”

Don’t overdo it

“Many parents feel pressure to have their children in multiple activities. I see families who are run ragged,” says White. Not only is it physically and financially draining to have too many extracurricular activities on the go, it also prevents kids from having free play time, which is essential and often in short supply.

“We’re seeing that kids don’t know how to play,” White says. “They wait for someone to give them direction because they’re used to having their time structured.”

Prive caps the number of activities her kids can take on, plus they each take a turn with time off. “I encourage them to play outside as much as possible,” she says, adding, “I don’t want my children to lack in their free play time.”


A price to pay

Three out of five parents say they borrow money or use retirement savings to pay for hockey or other extracurricular activities, or say they know someone who has.


Swamped by the schedule

Is your child overscheduled? Trouble signs include headaches or a sore stomach, difficulty completing schoolwork, and a lack of family time together (fast food meals in the minivan don’t count!).

Try these strategies to keep your child’s extracurricular activities on track:

  • Before signing up, research the total commitment involved. How many games or performances can you expect? Is practice at home required?
  • Rotate activities seasonally; for example, swimming lessons in summer and hockey in winter.
  • If your child asks to try a new activity, help her choose one to drop.
  • Plan family activities, such as bike rides and games nights.
  • Put playtime on the calendar, right alongside choir rehearsals and softball practice.

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