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04/07/2011 / melgardener

Finding the balance: after-school activities v down time

One of my fondest memories of childhood is the amount of unstructured, free play time we had. With the ‘gang’ of kids in our neighbourhood we would walk to the park, ride our bikes in the street, play games and generally hang out with whoever was available.

Last year’s SBS documentary on play clearly outlined the need for children to have time where they can be free to explore their creativity and individuality in unstructured environments.

And it was abundantly clear that many children are not receiving anywhere near the amount of free time they need.

The National Childcare Accreditation Council says “children have a natural urge to play and playing brings a level of pleasure and interest which means it can be maintained without external rewards”.

Children today don’t seem to be enjoying the same amounts of ‘downtime’ – I know my own children don’t. I believe some of this can be attributed to the increase in the sheer amount of after-school events available. Certainly when I was young, we didn’t have access to the width and breadth of organised activities that today’s children do.

And, even if we did, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to everything I would have been interested in.

Add to this the increasing amount of homework set, busy working parents, and access to computers, gaming consoles and television, and it’s no wonder our children don’t know how to amuse themselves without external guidance.

I regularly play the balance game with my children to provide them with access to experiences as well as time for free play. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find that happy equilibrium as my eldest discovers new and interesting activities she’d like to add to her week.

Currently, her entire curriculum of after school activities runs to 8 hours per week across 5 days, plus time spent competing at eisteddfods and performing at concerts.

And I’m well aware there are children doing even more than this.

All of this is of her own choosing. Of course, I would say that, and you don’t have the benefit of asking her yourself but I will state up front that I am prepared to pull her out of any or all of these classes the moment she tells me she wants to stop. And I have told her this explicitly.

I originally enrolled her in dance class as I had danced when I was younger and really enjoyed it. She took to it immediately and was chosen for a scholarship last year in the performance group (I like to think she has talent but don’t we all think that about our own children?).

I don’t want to deny her any opportunities (doesn’t every parent want this for their child?) and it’s hard to argue against this use of her time when I see the delight on her face after a class. But how much is too much? It’s a question I’m not sure I’ll ever answer.

Do your kids to after-school activities and, if so, for how many hours? Did you do a sport or activity when you were young? Was there anything you’d like to have tried, but didn’t have the chance? Do you think kids today are doing too much?

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