The vast array of extracurricular activities offered to school-age children can be a headache for kids and parents both. They can help kids develop talents and passions and learn how to push themselves. And, of course, we want them to look like well-rounded, accomplished kids to college admissions committees. But we don’t want to run them ragged or turn them into stressed-out automatons. Even parents of young children, who aren’t thinking about college yet, are feeling the pressure.
After school activities have also stepped in to supplant the unsupervised “free time” we’re no longer comfortable allowing our children to have, says Rachel Cortese, a former New York City schoolteacher and speech-language pathologist at the Child Mind Institute. And there is a consensus that children should have the opportunity to experiment with a variety of activities in well-delineated blocks—”structured free time,” as it is called.
But how much should parents push their kids to engage—and how much is too much?
In general, says Cortese, “kids tend to do really well when they have structure, and part of that structure is having an afterschool schedule.” Educational and learning specialist Ruth Lee also extols some well-known benefits of getting kids together outside of the classroom for more activities—especially the physical kind. “It gives kids social interactions,” she says, at the same time helping them “get out some of their energy so they can settle and go back to their work” after school. This is particularly important, she notes, as schools are cutting back on recess more and more.
For older kids, after-school activities can be very important as protection against more dangerous activities, says clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Rooney—particularly if parents are busy at work or with other children. “Once kids get into middle school and high school,” she says, “the hour or two after school is the highest risk time for dangerous behaviors like substance abuse, because it’s the largest chunk of time when kids are unmonitored.”
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