After-school activities: Keeping all the balls in the air

When it comes to after-school activities, Jen Hogan explores whether or not you can have too much of a good thing.
After-school activities: Keeping all the balls in the air
Joanna Fortune. Picture: Ronan Lang

When it comes to after-school activities, Jen Hogan explores whether or not you can have too much of a good thing.

My children have wide and varied interests. I embrace this wholeheartedly most of the time, marvelling at their differences, in spite of the same ingredients — except when it comes to afterschool activities — then I wish they could all be interested in something that offers progressive sibling discounts and takes place at the same time.

The texts and emails have arrived, reminding me to sign-up my children for their usual activities and so too has an influx of notes letting me know of new, exciting and endlessly beneficial activities that they haven’t tried before.

Doing everything is neither practical nor affordable, though, so a balance must be struck. A balance that will suit my pocket, suit my children and suit the existing demands already on our family.

My approach to afterschool activities has changed as my numbers have grown. Some of this has been forced by circumstance and some because life experience has taught me, that sometimes, less is more. My eldest child did everything her heart desired, within financial reason of course. I wanted to offer her a variety of experiences and didn’t want her to “miss out”.

So, after a morning’s work, I collected her younger siblings and drove from A to B to C so that she could participate in any number of activities that I believed could only benefit her. While she took ballet classes, my younger children protested in the car. And during her swimming lessons, they protested in the changing rooms, by the side of the pool and in the showers after, when a toddler would inevitably break free and join her fully clothed. Frazzled, stressed and with an evening’s homework yet to face, and dinner to prepare, I loaded the car afterwards and headed home.

Each day played out more or less the same while sports practice and matches meant our time at the weekends was not our own either. As my number of school-aged children grew so too did the demands on our already very limited time. It became apparent our lives and the lives of our younger children were revolving around our older children’s activities. In addition, the “Jack of all trades and master of none” analogy came home to roost as those with so many options, lost interest in everything quite quickly.

Things are different now and they do fewer activities. I like the idea of them doing something sporty and something creative or particularly suited to their personality. We have even managed some overlap between the children now both in terms of activities and times. However, even at that, someone still has something going on every day.

Maintaining a balance is not always easy. Sometimes I have to say no. One particular child seems interested in everything and I know, given the chance, would do everything wholeheartedly. He has a busy enough life as is, I feel — and so do we. Sometimes looking after a child’s best interests means looking after the family’s too. Making space for a little downtime for all of us, stands to benefit everyone. “Missing out” doesn’t just apply to after school activities — it applies to quality time relaxing and free-play too.

Clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune of believes children can do too many extra-curricular activities, but what constitutes “too many” will vary from child to child.

Joanna Fortune. Picture: Ronan Lang
Joanna Fortune. Picture: Ronan Lang

“Overstimulation can cause a sensory overloading effect which in turn can lead to what parents commonly call meltdowns,” Joanna explains. “Children lack the emotional vocabulary to state ‘I’m feeling overwrought by all of these activities’, so they tell us in their own language, that of their behaviour.”

A meltdown is a clear signal that a child has too much activity and not enough downtime or unstructured time to process their activities and experiences.

“Remember that sometimes sitting with you, their parent, doing absolutely nothing can mean absolutely everything to your child. Just because a child wants to do everything doesn’t mean they should.

“Children co-regulate with us their parents so we must gauge the appropriate activity level and hold them to that.

“Also a child who wants to join everything may not be very good at completing what you have already signed them up to.

“Set a limit of how many activities can be active at any time — perhaps one sport, one music/dance/drama type and either that’s enough, or add in a teamwork club like scouts/girl guides/adventure club.”

For the child not keen to partake in any afterschool activities, Joanna recommends to sit and explore why it is they don’t want to do anything else. “Perhaps they want the downtime at home with you, especially if they attend an after-school club and are away from you a lot during the week.

“All children benefit from some extra-curricular activity that allows them to try new things, affords them the opportunity to mix with children who hold a shared interest with them.”

As for the perfect number of afterschool activities Joanna says there really is no right answer to this.

“I would say the best rule to follow is to attune to what your child is enjoying and can manage without becoming overstimulated.

“Sit with them and review how they are experiencing their current activities and so long as they have at least one interest outside of school in their week that will be plenty for many children.”

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