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How do I know if my child is doing the right amount of extracurricular activities?

My daughter does a number of extracurricular activities throughout the week after school. How do I know if it is the right amount? She is starting to resist going to one class and there are lots of battles about it. How should I respond?

I will be honest. When I read how many activities your 10 year old child participates in per week, I felt tired even thinking about it. According to your email, your daughter spends eight hours at school per day, and for four days of the week attends some sort of lesson pre and post school. On three evenings each week, she gets home at 9pm, and often has to get up at the crack of dawn to complete homework assignments or do verbal reasoning tests. 

As you are a bilingual family, on Saturday mornings she attends three hours of language school. On Sundays, you all go out to watch an older child play football, where she sits patiently by the sideline (but is often asked to do some sort of homework, either in the car or on a device). 3-5pm on a Saturday afternoon is the only time that she gets to herself, doing what she wants to do.

I kept reading your email and imagining how happy she must be to reach 3pm on a Saturday! How liberating it must feel to be in a room full of her toys and just be. Your question implies that you are worried about the impact of her overscheduled life on her attitude. I am worried about what the impact might be on her wellbeing, her sleep and her learning.

Play researchers are constantly pointing out the importance of free play, and even boredom, as contributory factors for children’s mental health and wellbeing. As our Tooled Up Researcher of the Month for January 2022, psychologist, Dr Rachel Nesbitt, points out: “It is about trying not to overschedule, so children have time to choose what it is that they want to do… We feel as parents that we need to plan and enrich our children by giving them all of these opportunities, when in fact they may be missing out because we’re not allowing them to feel bored or go to the park with their friends”. 

Multiple factors mean that free and unstructured play have reduced over the years. The daily patterns of working families, busy family schedules, an increase in screen use and the diversification of screen media, reduced availability of outdoor play spaces and perhaps even a societal distaste for boredom (doing nothing isn’t something that many apps promote!) have all contributed. However, free time is one of the engine rooms for intellectual curiosity and, without it, our children may become a little down, fatigued or even demotivated. You might see children ‘plateauing’ and suddenly not making much progress, being irritable or refusing to go to bed at night.

The pandemic has affected all of our lives, and we know that ‘pandemic play’ is now a ‘thing’. Just like adults, children are processing the events of the last two years, so you could argue that being alone with their thoughts and/or role playing various scenarios with other children is a much needed activity. Coming home late during the week and being told to go straight to bed, when you haven’t had time to chill out with your teddies, can feel incredibly frustrating. It leaves no time to process the day, through play and time out. 

New data shows that one in six young people aged 6-19 in the UK now have a probable mental health disorder. Even pre-Covid, childhood anxiety is one of our biggest mental health disorders (certainly in the UK) and we know that UK children are among the unhappiest in Europe. The most recent Good Childhood Report, an annual survey carried out by the Children’s Society, found that children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction in Europe, have lower levels of happiness at school and with their friends, and feel a lower sense of purpose than their European counterparts. In fact, the report shows that an estimated 306,000 10-15 year olds in the UK are now unhappy with their lives.

Your motivations are completely understandable and are clearly driven by love and a desire to ensure that your child leads a fulfilled life. Admirably, you want her to be able to discover hidden talents and make the most of her intellectual capabilities. But there are dangers in the overscheduled life that you describe. Your daughter is likely not to have enough of the free, unstructured time that is utterly essential for creativity, learning and good mental health.

So, I think the first step to take is trying to put yourself in her little shoes and ask yourself whether or not you would actually enjoy this kind of schedule yourself? Map out her commitments, look at them with a friend or partner and be objective. What could be stripped out? What is she saying she doesn’t really enjoy? Where is she feeling least motivated?

Reflect on your own schedule. What are your favourite times of the week? Is it the times you have to attend meetings, or the times when you have some downtime? You may have noticed, as many adults do, that our greatest ideas can come to us in moments of boredom or relaxation, whilst we are lying in the bath or walking around the block with the dog.

Try to reflect on your own motivations for packing your daughter’s schedule to the brim. Are you anxious about their future? Afraid she will miss out? Heard that other people’s children are getting ahead? Aspiration-anxiety and FOMO, whilst understandable, in the competitive world that we live in, can undermine a child’s chances to thrive for the reasons given above. Have confidence in your child and in your own abilities to enrich their intellectual life through simply being together, having fun and gently attuning to how they see the world and what makes them tick. Try to allow your child to gently take the lead in terms of what fascinates or interests them. Flowers need time to bloom!

It is a good idea to talk to your daughter about how she feels about her week. Be positive! Talk through what she enjoys most and stay attuned to the activities and people that give her the greatest sense of joy. Be prepared to give her a modicum of agency over her own life as this is also likely to boost her self-esteem, her happiness and give her the optimal chance to thrive in exactly the way that you wish for her.