OPINION: Amid whirl of activities for kids, leave time to take a breath

Why is summer the only season that seems to move at warp speed?

Kids are heading back to school, and lately I have found myself thinking fondly of the early days of the pandemic when shutdowns meant slowdowns. It was a small respite from my afternoon job as the activity shuttle bus driver of one child.

I’m not alone in my thinking.

Lucius Jennett, a father of three, told me he spends at least eight hours a week transporting his children to and from activities. His 12-year-old daughter is very clear about which activities she wants to participate in, which makes decision-making easier, he said, while his 15-year-old son has needed more prodding to get involved in extracurriculars. This year, he will add his 10-year-old son to the family’s activity roster.

“For any family of three or more, with kids whose ages are somewhat spread apart, it becomes very challenging, the juggling of such things, getting them here and there safely,” said Jennett. “There was a dip for a while, then it picked right back up in 2021.”

For the past two decades, kids have been engaging in more extracurricular activities, including lessons and sports, according to an analysis from the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of boys playing sports increased to 44% in 2020. Sports is most popular among boys though more girls (34.6%) are also playing sports.

Girls tend to prefer lessons such as music, dance and language, with 37.3% of girls taking lessons in 2020 compared to 33.5% in 1998. Boys also take more lessons than they did two decades ago, but their rate of participation is consistently lower than girls’ rate.

The one decrease in activities for kids has been among religious groups or clubs such as Scouting. In 1998, 37.8% of girls participated in clubs, compared to only 29.4% in 2020.

Participation in sports and lessons can require substantial outlays of parental time and money, and only children in households that are 200% or more above the poverty level charted increased participation in activities over the past 20 years.

We know extracurriculars have positive effects on children, but there are limits to those benefits.

“In general, kids who participate in extracurricular activities have opportunities to explore and develop interests, which can result in increased confidence and self-esteem,” said Jody Baumstein, licensed therapist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life.

Building community with peers, improved academic performance, learning teamwork and improving mental and physical health are some of the other known benefits of participating in activities, Baumstein said.

All those good benefits disappear when kids are overscheduled.

When children become tired and grumpy, complain of headaches or stomachaches, become anti-social or slack on chores at home, those are just a few signs that it might be time to reassess the level of activities.

“Kids may be too busy to get quality sleep, proper nutrition, and adequate physical activity,” Baumstein said. “If kids are too overscheduled and stressed, they may be more likely to experience anxiety or depression.”

One professional study from 2011 found that the single greatest predictor of activity-related stress was among children who averaged at least two hours of homework per night.

Jennett, who has taught fifth grade at The Children’s School for 22 years, said he has seen an increase in anxiety among the student populations over the years. The school adopted a policy of limiting the amount of homework to help prevent stress at home, he said.

Unstructured time and play are important for creativity, exploration and connection, according to Baumstein.

So why does the level of activity keep going up from one decade to the next?

“Kids and families might be feeling increased pressure to ‘keep up’ in comparison to others,” said Baumstein. “Some might feel as though their identity or self-worth is connected to the number of activities they are engaged in.”

Teens load up on activities to make sure they have competitive college applications or they may just have access to more activities they are genuinely interested in investigating.

Kids and families are unique, and finding the right balance is more about individual needs than meeting some nonexistent standard for a definitive number of activities.

“We don’t want to make assumptions about why kids are, or are not, wanting to engage in activities,” Baumstein said. “Instead, we want to open a dialogue with them to better understand what it is that they are thinking and feeling. Start a conversation with open-ended questions, then actively listen and follow their lead.”

Baumstein said parents and caregivers need to be intentional about helping kids understand the importance of finding balance by modeling that balance in our words and actions.

We can provide children with enriching experiences while also teaching them the value of downtime.

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