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EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES

Extracurricular activities earlier than high school provide general enrichment and help the young child figure out what of all the things out there in the world–music, sports, art, dance–are most compelling and interesting.

Children need such stimulation and organized activities during the learning years. They also need spontaneous play with other children and by themselves. (This means no grownups around telling them what to do.) Finally they need do-nothing time to daydream and process all the new things they have learned that are swirling around in their heads.

How much of each? Nobody knows. We do know that since the 80s children’s free playtime has dropped 25%. Children 1) spend more time in structured activities and 2) unstructured time tends to be solitary and sedentary (computer, TV, video games).

The wise parent picks up clues to the best division of structured and unstructured time. Each parent has to figure out where each child fits on the boredom to over-programmed continuum. Observation and conversation are the twin keys to solving this puzzle.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that each child is different. The balance between structured activities, play, and do-nothing time varies from child to child. And this balance will depend on the age of the child, the child’s temperament and personality, and what the child likes to do.

Observant parents use their eyes and ears and a bit of intuition to learn about their particular child. Does the child show signs of fatigue, irritability, on days there are after school activities? Seem bored on days there are not? Speak excitedly about soccer and grimace when you ask about tennis lessons? Does the child have accessible friends to play with? Seem to enjoy such play? Does the child enjoy alone time and can the child figure out satisfying stuff to do then?

Parental intuition picks up clues from the books children choose at the library, their interest about activities other children are doing, how receptive they are when you suggest an activity, what they collect, what the children say they are going to be when they grow up, and even what interests them when they watch the news on TV. And of course parents pay attention to how well a child performs in activities both at school and after school.

Yes you can converse with your children just the way you do with other adults. Ask the child about the extracurricular activity. Do you like it? Do you want to do this again next term? If you don’t do this what would you like to do? Do you have enough time to get your homework done? Are you ever bored at home? Remember to give the child plenty of time to answer and don’t try to influence the answers.

One mother asked me if her 9-year-old daughter had enough extracurricular activities to impress the admissions committee at college. The last thing a parent should worry about is what fourth grade extracurricular activity level will mean to a college admissions board. It will mean nothing. What will be relevant when it comes time to apply for college is the child’s motivation, ability to do good school work, interest in furthering education and finding a satisfying career, extracurricular activities in high school, and getting along with peers.

The reason the balance between programmed activity and play is so important is to avoid pushing the child beyond enjoyment and fun. The reason parents should not start thinking about college applications when their kid is 10 is to avoid making the child grow up too fast or follow your path not his or her own path.

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