When it comes to scheduling kids' extracurricular programs, it's essential to balance their participation in classes and sports with the need for unstructured relaxation time.
Finding the Right Balance
Given what we know about the positives of extracurricular activities and also the benefits of downtime, how do we go about finding what works for us? Here are some tips for ensuring your kids experience the right mix of enriching activities and nourishing downtime.
Create a schedule that works for your family. Because many children spend too much time using mobile devices and watching TV, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends maintaining at least one hour of physical activity a day and limiting screen time to two hours a day, according to Melanie Wilson-Taylor, M.D., F.A.A.P., also of South Slope pediatrics. “Oftentimes parents are busy with work or taking care of younger children and there can be pressure to make sure that kids are kept busy,” she says. “Many parents often feel the need to compete and make sure their child has access to every extracurricular activity in order to be a better candidate for the next level of school.”
Carefully consider what activities are right for your child. Dr. Wilson-Taylor recommends parents ask their child if she enjoys the activity and to consider whether there are true benefits—academic, social, personal development—in it. She cautions that sometimes the amount of time a child spends in an activity is reasonable but the type of activity may not fit the personality of the child. Parents should consider whether their child prefers group or individual activities, for instance, or whether the child will experience undue anxiety of performing in an end-of-year production or recital.
“Parents should also be mindful about how extracurricular activities affect the behavior and self-worth,” Dr. Wilson-Taylor says. “If the child is focused on always winning and values themselves based on their ability to succeed in the activity, caregivers should re-evaluate the importance of that activity.” One good rule of thumb she tells her patients: Due to a limited attention span, structured activities for children younger than 6 should be limited to 30 minutes at a time. Older children can tolerate activities that are an hour or two.
Look out for the red flags. According to Dr. Wilson-Taylor, temperament and age play a big part in judging whether a child is overscheduled. Some children like participating in activities outside of school or on the weekends and thrive on constantly doing something. Other children are homebodies or prefer unstructured activities. She cautions that “an overscheduled child has more tantrums prior to the activity, may take a long time to get ready, and may outright say ‘no’ to going. Older children may exhibit poor sleep patterns the night before in anticipation of participating in the event the next day. They also may seem more isolated from friends or family because they are always ‘doing something.’”
Parents should be concerned if they notice a child is clingier to caregivers, his grades are dropping, or her homework is getting squeezed into small gaps of free time—in the car, on the bus, waking up early before school. “If not attended to, young kids communicate discomfort one way or the other and raise the flag. This could be acting out in school or more tantrums at home,” Peters says.
Children may also exhibit stress-induced physical symptoms, some of which can mimic actual illness. “When a child’s day is scheduled down to the minute, they can become stressed, and sometimes manifest physical symptoms of that stress,” Dr. Copenhaver says. “Stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue are common symptoms that children present to my office with, and the problem is sometimes an overloaded schedule without enough down time.” In her practice, she also sees teens complaining of fatigue, and often finds out they are sleeping fewer than five hours a night because of their busy school and after-school schedules.
Trust your gut. “Like everything connected to parenting,” Peters says “this issue is very individual to each family.” Ultimately, she says, parents know their children—and since each situation and child is different, parents must rely on their instincts to decide when their child needs fewer after-school activities and more me time.
The bottom line: You probably don’t need to worry that your child is overscheduled or that the number of activities in which he participates will have a negative impact on him. However, me time remains an essential part of everyone’s life and plays an important role in children’s development—so make sure to schedule some unscheduled time into your child’s life regularly.
This is the second in a two-part series about the importance of downtime. Read the previous article, about me time for moms.