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Extracurricluar Activities: How much is too much?

The first question my son asks me each day when I pick him up from school is: "what do we got tonight?" I can see the wheels in his brain turning as I respond- X amount of time for practice/scouts/4H, X amount of time for homework, X amount of time for play time and on as he's planning how his evening will go. Most days, he is excited to attend whatever practice or event we have going on, but there is the occasional day when he is less than excited. His lack of enthusiasm can turn into grumpiness, complaints, and a general lack of energy. He will sigh heavy and trudge on, but sometimes I wonder how much is too much? I begin to wonder (and worry) if he is stressed out by too many activities.

Research has often touted the importance of afterschool activities for children. Studies have cited multiple benefits that result from participation in extracurricular activities including improved behavior/reduced behavior problems, higher self-esteem, higher grades and more positive attitude toward school, improved social skills, and development of skills that help children become productive adults. Balancing school work and activities can also allow children an opportunity to learn and practice time management.

More recently, however, attention has been paid to the overscheduling of extracurricular activities. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver, found that children who spent more time in less structured activities had a more highly-developed, self-directed executive function area in the brain. This area of the brain controls planning, decision making, manipulating information, and switching between tasks – skills that are early indicators of school readiness and academic performance. The researchers surmised that when children are in control of how they spend their time, they are able to get more practice setting goals and figuring out what to do next. Another study found that exposing children to extracurricular activities too early can develop stress disorders in some children.

Often, the problem isn't the activities, it's too many activities. Packing evenings with activities may lead to fewer and fewer family dinners and the loss of important time and space to connect as a family. Parents may experience fatigue and burnout due to the weekly grind of driving from activity to activity. Overscheduled children will eventually begin to show signs of being too busy. They may feel tired, anxious, or even depressed. Schoolwork may suffer and the child's grades may drop. The child may even complain of headaches or stomachaches which could be due to stress, missed meals, or a lack of sleep.

One word may help families avoid this harried pace of life: balance. Consider taking an "everything in moderation" approach to activities. While extracurricular activities have many positive benefits for children, overscheduling can put children at risk.

Here are 10 ways to bringing balance into extracurricular activities:

  1. Consider activities in moderation and in relation to your child's abilities, interests, and age. If your child is no longer interested in soccer, what's the point in running ragged to keep him involved? Give your child a voice in the activities he participates in. Allowing him to direct his activities will give you both a sense of meaning and enjoyment.
  2. Be aware of when too much is too much and step back. Carefully observe your child for signs of overscheduling. If activities begin to interfere with your child's life, chances are they are doing too much. Decide as a family which activities can be cut back.
  3. Keep a family calendar. With family members involved in multiple activities, it is essential to know who is where and when. Create a calendar for each family member as well as a general family calendar.
  4. Create and honor family time. Eating on the run may be necessary from time to time, but it is also important to plan family dinners when you can – even if it means eating a little later than normal. Be sure to plan family fun time as well. Connecting as a family is important – even in the hectic pace of life.
  5. Stick to your priorities. School and schoolwork should be the top priority. If school work begins to suffer as a result of activities, an activity (or two) may need to be dropped.
  6. Just say no. If your child is really excited about adding another activity to her already overloaded schedule, discuss with her what activity needs to be dropped to make room for the new activity. Consider carefully what adding another activity to the schedule would mean for the child and the family and say "no" if needed.
  7. Provide adequate downtime. Give your child (and you!) ample opportunities for relaxation and even a chance to blow off steam. Unstructured time is good for developing independence, imagination, and even just plain old playing. Remembering the importance of down time can provide everyone with rest and restoration – preparing all to take on the busy schedule!
  8. Implement stress-reducing activities in the home. Try yoga or meditation. There are many excellent print, game, and web based resources for both.
  9. Teach children to identify their own signs of stress. Encourage your child to verbalize when they are feeling stressed or overscheduled. Actively listen and problem-solve with your child to help them cope.
  10. Assist your child in identifying coping strategies. If it just isn't possible to pare down activities or on particularly busy days, using coping techniques can help in dealing with stress. Ask your child what they do to feel good and then implement those techniques during stressful or busy days.

Implementing these 10 strategies can help deal with the additional and burdens that may result from too many activities.

Note: Portions of this blog were originally posted on Family Files Blog, September 2015.

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