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Ask an Expert: How many extracurriculars are too many?

EdNews Parent and retired educator R. Kim Herrell responds to a question from Wendy of Denver:

Q. How many extra-curricular activities are too many for my elementary aged kids?

A. “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” grandma used to say. Or is it, “You are going to experience all those things that I couldn’t as a kid.” “There are non-negotiables in our family, and you will participate,” may be a bottom line. So, there are our children living out our choices, especially when they are young. How much is too much?

My wife and I, when we were dating, agreed to some bottom lines for our kids. I imagine a lot of couples do. I never learned to swim, so our children had to learn how. I never learned how to read music, so our children had to learn the piano and how to read music. Both are life skills. We also try to eat dinner as a family, and worship together with our community. This is family time.

Beyond making them better than me, I hoped they would love baseball/softball the way my family had. It was the foundation of my childhood. I was always too busy coaching at the schools that I taught in to be their coach, which is probably good. But after some bad experiences with screaming coaches, they both said, “NO MORE!” My son said to me once, “I love baseball, dad. If all coaches could be like coach Pat I would keep playing, but most are just mean.” I just couldn’t make them continue.

Both enjoyed soccer at different times, more so for the friends than for the game. Eventually, both settled into the theatre arts/performing arts in secondary school. My wife and I enjoy the arts, too, so we didn’t mind a bit.

I would say that there is an informal formula: Family schedule + school schedule + nonnegotiables + one other = enough for the average child. They need time to rest their brain and heal their body, and they still need unstructured playtime with peers. Exceptions would be a family I know that is one of the top motorcycle racing teams in the USA. Racing is their life, and all of their extracurricular time is consumed by it. Another kiddo I had was a gymnast, and all her time was spent training for the Olympics. Her mother worked full-time for her, and dad worked full-time to pay the bills. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

Jack Rose, the legendary baseball coach at the University of Denver, once told me that I had three goals as a high school coach, “Teach them the fundamentals. Don’t ever intentionally put your players in a situation in which they will be hurt. And, above all, don’t kill their love of the game.” I have used that advice as a parent, too. When our children have shown an interest in something we have tried to help them learn the fundamental knowledge about that activity. We have tried not to put them in a situation in which they could be injured. We have also tried to be supportive fans so we didn’t squelch their love of what they were doing. I haven’t always been successful, but I try.

Time for family, time for school, time for life activities/skills, and time for an activity for your child will fill up your child’s schedule. The time left is for resting, healing, and play. Any more may be too much. And please listen to your children and their dreams.

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