As a parent of a couple of school-aged kids, it can feel like a constant battle to keep all of the balls in the air. How do I manage to do the housework, pack lunches, iron uniforms, get out the door for school, serve nutritious meals, complete homework and hold down a job during the week before even considering soccer training and dance practice?
It can be easy to make extracurricular activities a low priority amongst all of the daily must-haves, but the benefits of engaging in activities outside of school are just too great to ignore.
Types of extracurricular activities
To capture the types of activities children do outside school could take pages. Needless to say, the traditional options continue to reign supreme, be it netball, dancing, or football, swimming and music. There’s Girl Guides, Scouts or cadet units which still cater for those more interested in sleeping under the stars, but new-world options like coding and robotics are also becoming more commonplace.
Each option brings its own unique benefits, risks, costs and time commitments. For many parents, it’s not a case of should my child do something outside school but rather, which combination is the best?
Research has shown significant benefits for kids of all ages when it comes to engaging in activities outside school.
The Australian Department of Health identifies some of these benefits in broad terms, especially when it comes to the more physically active options.
Emotional and intellectual benefits:
While these ideas would not be surprising to most, the research published in January 2018 by Najum Tariq brings a more scientific lense to the topic:
The students who actively participate in extracurricular activities get a lot of benefits including higher grades, and test scores, higher educational achievements, more regularity in class attendance and higher self-confidence. While out-of-school activities increase leadership and teamwork abilities in students. These activities also decrease the use of drugs, alcohol and behavioral and disciplinary problems related to their use
It would be difficult to find a parent who would not want these outcomes for their child.
If extracurricular activities were the golden ticket to success for students, we would see mandated participation. Instead we see encouragement without compulsion. The risks of extracurricular activities seem less researched, however the following list could act as a starting point. Students can be:
- Overcommitted to a single activity
- Stretched too broadly
- Distracted from academics
- Injured in both minor and serious ways
- Required to miss school in pursuit of representative competition
Finding the right balance
In seeking to capitalise on the benefits and avoid the risks of extracurricular activities, parents need to find the right balance for each child. This will vary according to the child’s age, interests, available options and their unique personality. There really is no one-size-fits-all model.
Adding to this complexity is the broader family context. The number of siblings, financial capacity and ability to physically get kids to training and events each play a role.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the need for parents to keep all of their balls in the air. Katie Hurley is a published child and adolescent psychotherapist who puts it simply:
Set realistic expectations for the family. One thing I find over and over again is that families are running on stress. If kids are caught up in doing it all, someone has to get them there, and that burden falls on parents who are stretched thin. Kids don’t need to do it all.
It seems logical that any child, or indeed any family, cannot do it all. There needs to be a level of prioritisation. The child rightly has a voice in selecting after school activities, their own interests or social preferences must hold significant weight. Parents will also have their own hopes and desires, such as a coding activity to build IT skills, or swimming lessons for beach safety or perhaps soccer to develop teamwork.
Each activity brings with it bespoke benefits which will ideally complement the child’s whole development. What we sometimes forget as an option is to do nothing. This gives time so the child learns to be bored, to imagine while playing with LEGO or to read books for pleasure. Providing a structured nothing may be just as important for busy families as adding another dance lesson to the schedule.
It’s clear that kids who engage in activities outside school are in general more resilient, well rounded, socially connected and achieve better academic results. The evidence is also clear that parents need to say “no” to adding more to the agenda when it will create overload for the child or broader family.
As parents we want the best for our kids. Seeking to engage in a broad range of activities is ideal, but only insofar as it doesn’t have a detrimental impact on the relationships that make the family what it is.