If your child isn’t overscheduled, you probably know one who is. Spontaneous after-school play dates or frolics through the neighborhood have become a rarity for many kids, who instead rush off to piano lessons, soccer games or gymnastics practices as soon as the school dismissal bell rings. This trend even prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics recently to issue a statement saying that unstructured playtime is critical to children’s development.
My daughter is in fourth grade and probably meets the criteria for an overscheduled child. She has an after-school activity every day except Friday, and two mornings a week she arrives at school an hour early for orchestra rehearsal. There are also occasional Girl Scout meetings, special practices and concerts.
In the eyes of the AAP, my daughter’s jampacked schedule would perhaps raise some red flags, and initially, I was concerned too. Earlier this fall, as our family calendar swelled with drama rehearsals, swim lessons and martial arts classes, I felt my blood pressure rising. I worried about the potential pitfalls — namely, increased stress and a big reduction in leisure time — of letting my daughter participate in so many extracurricular activities.
But several weeks into the school year, I’m much more comfortable with the schedule. Here’s why.
She thrives when participating in several activities. Before I considered signing her up for anything, my daughter made a compelling case for why she wanted to try each activity. While I pushed back at first, her enthusiasm won me over. Over time, I’ve observed that she is happiest with a mix of structured activities that engage her mind and body in different ways.
By contrast, my younger daughter loves to play independently and has little desire to cram her waking hours with supervised programs — and that’s okay, too. Just like adults, some kids enjoy being busy; others prefer more unstructured time. As long as my older daughter remains the driving force in selecting her activities, I want to support her to the extent that our family schedule and budget allow.
She can socialize with different groups. Around third grade, cliques at school become a bigger factor in kids’ friendships, fueled by the strong desire to fit in and feel secure. Participating in an array of extracurricular activities gives my daughter a sense of belonging as she works with peers toward shared goals. It also offers her a chance to develop close-knit friendships outside school. No matter what might have happened at recess that day, she can always regroup, and commiserate with her theater friends about flubbing lines, or strategize with her taekwondo buddies about how to tackle a tough board break.
She’s learning to prioritize. Most days, we have a small window between school and activities. One such afternoon, my daughter dropped her backpack on the floor and made a beeline for her iPad.
“Do you think you should finish your homework before screen time?” I asked.
She waved me off. “I’ll do it later.”
Later turned out to be past her bedtime, when she suddenly remembered the reading assignment she’d postponed. “I should’ve done my homework first,” she said.
Allowing her to carry a full schedule has taught her more about time management than all of my well-intentioned nagging ever could. She has to keep up with her homework and get adequate sleep, or she’ll have little energy for the activities she enjoys.
She’s discovering that she won’t always be the best at everything. Like me, my daughter is competitive and struggles with perfectionism. At first, when she didn’t get a lead part in the fall musical, she was crushed. But now she loves being part of the ensemble and is learning from her more experienced cast mates. Trying different activities has helped her realize that the most important thing is to show up and give her best effort.
In supporting my daughter’s extracurricular activities, though, I do have a few nonnegotiable rules.
School comes first. Always. She needs to stay caught up on homework, reading and studying for tests.
If she signs up for an activity, I expect her to complete the full session. She needs to understand that when she commits to an activity, her parents are making a commitment, too — both financially and time-wise. Shuttling her to and from activities impacts our family schedule. If she loses interest or decides that something just isn’t for her, that’s okay, but she has to finish the session.
The expectation is that she gives her best effort, not that she performs perfectly. Whether she’s in the classroom, on the stage or in the pool, I expect her to do her best. But I want her to make plenty of mistakes while finding what she’s passionate about. What matters most is that she’s putting forth a genuine effort — even if her rendition of “Hot Cross Buns” on the violin sounds like a mouse being murdered (as she once put it).
I’ll admit that my daughter’s full schedule adds an element of stress to our lives. There are weeks when one parent is traveling and the other has to scramble to cover the transportation duties that we normally share. There are evenings when we sit down to dinner at eight o’clock, and there are frantic morning searches for spelling homework that somehow got lost in the shuffle.
But so far the benefits have outweighed the downsides. While next year could look completely different for my tween, at the moment, being “overscheduled” feels just right.
Gina Rich is a mother and writer in Wisconsin. She blogs at Love, Hope & Coffee.