The benefits of extracurricular activities are plentiful, but we’ve also likely encountered warnings about the dangers of overscheduling your child.
As we begin to head into a new school year, we may be scanning long lists of extracurricular activities for kids available at school and in our community. Whether your child is begging to participate in 10 different activities or apathetically shrugging at the list and shaking their head at all of your suggestions, we as parents may feel unsure just what is the right approach to extracurriculars, and how much is too much?
Benefits of Extracurricular Activities
In general, extracurricular activities benefit children socially, emotionally, and academically. Children who participate in activities outside of school are reported to have higher self-esteem, improved verbal and math skills, a greater “sense of purpose,” and lower rates of drug and alcohol use (with the exception, unfortunately, of high school athletes), according to research from Child Trends.
Child Trends reports, in fact, that an absence of extracurricular activities for at-risk youth has been linked with lower academic performance, higher likelihood of not finishing high school, and higher rates of obesity.
After spending a day participating in obligatory academic training in a classroom setting at school, extracurricular activities can offer children a place to pursue passion-based learning. Children often get the chance to interact with both adults and children who share a passion, allowing them a chance to form social bonds. They also have the unique opportunity to try “playing the whole game at the junior level,” as David Perkins, Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls it.
For example, participating in a theatre program allows children to witness and take part in everything from set design to acting and directing. They see the process of a performance through from start to finish. In contrast, in the classroom, they often only see a slice of a particular skill – how to deal with variables in algebra on paper but now how to apply this to coding to create a video game or new software, for example.
Effects of Overscheduling a Child
While we rush to sign children up for activities that help the stay active, unleash their creativity, give them an academic edge, build their resume for college and more, we may find ourselves and perhaps our children starting to feel frazzled.
To put it bluntly, “As much as we would like to keep our children active and engaged, overscheduling is simply not good for them or parents,” according to Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
He warns that overscheduled families spend less time together and tend to be on edge. He suggests families look out for symptoms of overscheduling that might include tiredness, irritability, academic struggles, and even physical symptoms of stress such as headaches and stomachaches.
Particularly for younger children, remember that play is essential to their development. Young children gain crucial social and problem-solving skills through play, and learning through play is more effective than learning through worksheets and flash cards for young minds.
Is My Child Overscheduled?
If extracurricular activities are beneficial, but too many structured activities offer a downside, where do we draw the line? With all the warnings against overscheduling our kids, that line may actually be farther out than you think.
Up to 20 hours per week of extracurricular activities is acceptable, according to research from Child Trends, which reports “academic performance and emotional stability levels off or declines after extracurricular involvement beyond twenty hours per week.”
Now, families with more than one child especially might scoff at the idea of 20 hours per week of activities per child, and I don’t blame them. Child Trends found that among children who participate in any extracurricular activities, the average is about 10 hours per week, which seems much more doable to me.
With this in mind, Child Trends classifies only between three and six kids out of 100 as “overscheduled.”
Of course, these are benchmarks and generalizations. They are helpful as broader guidelines, but each family and each child will have their own limits on how much stimulation and structure they can handle.
What About Underscheduled Kids?
Overall, about 60% of children and adolescents participate in organized activities outside of school. That means the other 40% are not participating in any extracurricular activities after school. According to Child Trends, this group of students is worthy of our attention.
“The research illustrating the positive outcomes of participation in organized out-of-school activities tells us that we should direct our focus not to the few children and youth who are over-scheduled, but rather to those who do not participate at all,” they report.
Beyond encouraging our own sons and daughters to pursue their particular interests outside of school, perhaps we can reach out to other children. Sponsoring a child or helping to set up scholarships for children who do not have the resources to participate can go a long way in helping at-risk children and children from low-income households secure a brighter future and more pleasant present. Even offering rides to the child of a parent who has trouble accommodating extracurricular activities because of busy work schedules or multiple siblings can be a way to help a child pursue their interest and gain the social and academic benefits of their peers.