The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 30, 2004


Children's after-school activities: lives of the young and busy

Setting up a play date for children can be a challenge. A phone call between parents can go like this: "Can Andrew come over next Tuesday?"

"Right now, the only free day he has is Friday."

"The Cub Scouts have a sleepover at the Children's Museum that night. How about the week after?"

There are so many after-school activities these days that many children's calendars are full. Brochures arrive by mail and in school backpacks for baseball, soccer, ice skating, hockey, dancing, museum classes, and summer camps to name just a few.

It's easy to criticize parents for overdoing children's schedules, harder to understand why they do so much. The truth is, from Carlisle to California, families who can afford the time and expense of lessons often lead very busy lives.

More than a dozen families with children in the Carlisle School and in high school recently shared their thoughts about their schedules. Having children in several activities a week is typical. Most children in these families go to an average of four scheduled activities a week. Some have one sport such as hockey three to four times a week, others go to several different activities a week. One elementary school girl goes to Brownies, ice skating, ballet, and piano lessons. Another has an activity every day except Sunday.

The busiest are a couple of middle school students who play more than one sport at a time, plus a musical instrument as well. These children had eight to nine scheduled activities a week outside of school. Though these children's schedules may surprise some, they're fairly common today.

Kindergarteners, first and second graders take part in the RecCom's "Paint and Draw" class in the Nickles Room at Town Hall. The winter class runs with eight sessions on Tuesday afternoons. Art students (left to right) are Ellen Askey, Matthew Gardner, Martin Nayeri, Katelyn Reichheld (behind Martin's drawing), Tyler Reichheld, Kevin McNamara, Katie Nuan, Changming Xu and Suzy Balles. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

As Carlisle parent Kathy Balles sees it, the reasons for signing kids up are clear enough to parents. "One, everyone else is doing it. Second, there often is no one available to play with," though she says her family is lucky because their Nowell Farme Road neighborhood sometimes does have children around after school.

Stacy DeBroff, author of Sign Me Up! The Parents' Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes and Other Extracurriculars, describes the feelings some parents may have. "Today, neighborhoods where parents feel they can send their children out to romp around unsupervised are scarce. We feel like we live in a more dangerous and unpredictable world."

Why kids do so much

One reason parents give for enrolling their children is to expose them to as many different activities as possible for enrichment. The idea is that in the long run, children will be able to choose what suits them best.

Parents also say children request activities themselves when they see their friends doing them. Marty Blue's children wanted to take piano lessons when they saw their friends taking them. "I leave it up to the kids, but I give some guidance. At times, I say 'you can't do everything. You have to choose.' My girls want to do everything." "For better or worse, admits another mother, "we are living in a society that is more kid-focused than ever. We may be indulging kids too much at times."

Activities seem to beget more activities. Girl and Boy Scouts meet twice a month, but there are other activities involved: cookie sales for Girl Scouts, the Pinewood Derby for Cub Scouts, and extra outings. Playing an instrument also takes regular practice at home. Music and dance programs often hold holiday and year-end performances requiring extra rehearsals and practices. Many children also go to weekly religious services and to education classes at churches and synagogues.

With all the activities everyone else is doing, some parents may feel they are not doing enough for their child. The pressure to "keep with the Joneses" as far as their child's activities are concerned can be catching. Author DeBroff and staff interviewed over 500 parents, teachers and coaches for advice on children's activities. She describes the peer pressure parents sometimes feel. "It's hard to pare down your own child's activities when the kids next door and at school are going full tilt."

Youth sports, homework, play dates

Physical fitness is the reason parents give for enrolling kids in sports and physical activities. "The winter is too long and kids really need physical activity. Otherwise they can watch too much TV," says Chela Watson. "My kids must do something that is physical," agrees Stephanie Shenton and the two physical education classes a week at school, though great, are not enough.

The average age for starting a sport is getting younger. For parents, middle school was often the age to begin. Today it's often in kindergarten, while some are introduced to sports even younger. Preschool soccer is becoming more popular.

One reason many start team sports at so young an age may be parents' fear that if they wait, their child may not be able to catch up with their classmates. A child who wants to start later at ten or twelve often lags so much in skills by then that they can't compete in a sport. "My boys would like to start soccer now, but they won't because they're intimidated by the more advanced skills of others," says one mother of her middle-school sons. "I'd like to start my own soccer camp for kids who start late."

Dinner is often impacted by sports schedules. Dinner-time practices fit a volunteer coach's only free time after work, but practices then mean rushed meals or fast food. Weekends are also affected by sports. Hockey practice is at 7 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday morning at the rink in Concord for a first-grade boy and his family.

"Once your child hits elementary school, your typical family weekend can easily devolve into an endless array of sporting events, practices, sleepovers, and play dates," writes DeBroff, "Evenings quickly become consumed by lessons, practices, and games."

There isn't a parent around who hasn't felt they took on too much at times, especially in spring and fall when many sports teams are active. "One spring I had baseball for three kids," says one parent. "Having a child play two sports at a time can put a family over the edge," says another. One spring was "unbelievable" says Mary Cheever with a child in high school and another in middle school. They're glad to be free of that schedule now. "I find the kids limited the activities. You get over that guilt feeling that you're not doing enough and reach a good equilibrium."

Getting homework done also takes priority. Beginning in second grade, homework takes more time with each grade. "Homework comes first in this house," says Holly Salemy with three boys in Concord-Carlisle Youth Hockey from September to March. They do their homework first after school then go to the skating rink when they have a practice scheduled. Then it's time for dinner and off to bed by eight o'clock.

The one or two free afternoons a week that some children have are time for play dates. Other parents avoid scheduling them altogether to simplify life. "It's hard to coordinate play dates for three different kids. Sometimes it's easier not to do it," says one mother. "Besides, kids need down-time. They play with their siblings and in the neighborhood."

Parents who work

Parents who work full-time may limit the number of activities by necessity. Margaret Crouse thinks that with her working, her daughter's two activities a week are plenty. "For six- to seven-year-olds, it's still a long day for kids in first grade. Some of her peers can handle more activities. You have to be sensitive to your own child." Donna Cuomo has a son in the after-school extended day program who wants to sign up for Concord-Carlisle Youth Baseball this spring. Practices or games will be twice a week and it will be a busy day with school, extended day, baseball practice, supper and finally, homework. "I don't feel that he always has to be in something," she says, "It's good for him to just come home and relax. Because we both work, we have to reserve family time."

Carpooling with friends and family helps parents drive to activities outside Carlisle. Gio DiNicola carpooled with a friend when her daughter was in the Berkshire Albany Ballet's Nutcracker. For five weeks they shared driving to Reading. With one hour for rehearsal and a 45-minute drive each way, it took about three hours on Saturdays and Sundays at a busy time of the year.

Free time

Kids usually have the most unscheduled time with their families on weekends. Those who play sports, however, are often the most scheduled on weekends when their teams play.

The busyness that many families experience is part of the culture today. But it doesn't have to be that way according to The Over-Scheduled Child authors Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise. "Childhood needn't be an endless treadmill of productivity and self-improvement. Kids deserve to have fun, down-time and empty spaces in their lives to fill any way they choose to."

Downtime has its downsides, however. Free time often means time to watch TV and play computer and video games. While many computer games are educational as well as fun, too much time in front of the computer or TV, concerns parents who have to limit it like anything else.

A few families try to avoid the activities trend and have their kids play at home most days after school. "Kids need veg-out time," one parent says. "There's enough pressure at school with homework. Kids need a lot of time to play and to play outside, too."

While some families feel they have the right balance and are not over-scheduled, everyone agrees they have taken on too much at times. Though most believe kids need more free time to relax and invent their own play, the current activities culture seems to support anything but that. Author DeBroff encourages more discussion about what's happening with children's activities. "Go for extracurricular activities in moderation," she urges parents. "Have the courage to set limits and say no when needed."

What parents say about activities

"It was so different when I grew up. We came home from school, changed clothes and went out to play."

"After school, my life revolves around my child."

"I feel relief when the summer comes. There's no schedule."

"Parents get busy and can be caught up in activities. It's easy to lose the ability to be objective about it."

"We're missing a lot of unstructured time with kids. They are resilient, but sometimes I think we take advantage of that. I guess the good thing is my children have experienced much more than I did at their age."

Recommended books discussing the busy child

These are a few of the growing number of books on the busy lives of children. (See article on page 8). They can be requested through the Gleason Library's online inter-library loan service.

The Hurried Child, Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, by David Elkind, 1981. A modern child psychology classic written by a Tufts University professor, it's in its third edition.

Just Let the Kids Play, by Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney, and Linda Hall, 2001. On the youth sports culture.

The Over-scheduled Child, Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, by Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise, 2000.

Sign Me Up! The Parents' Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes and Other Extracurriculars, 2003. A reference guide for parents with some strong opinions on "activities mania."

A web site with a video clip of a Channel 4 piece on children's extra-curricular activities.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito