Scheduling Activities for Kids

I was sitting on the bleachers in the elementary school, getting ready to register my first child for kindergarten, when I overheard a mom discussing her 5-year old’s mood with another mom.

“Well, I guess maybe she’s tired. She had gymnastics twice this week, and right after this she has horseback riding. Tomorrow she starts swim lessons.”

BusyCalI was tired just hearing her schedule!

One of my parenting struggles has been finding a balance around choosing activities for my kids (or letting them choose). Some kids would do anything you sign them up for; others have to really be encouraged to try new things. Some want to quit if they aren’t excelling at something, while others are just happy to be around other kids regardless of the activity. Temperament and personality play into these tendencies. And, depending on your schedule and number of children, life can get crazy pretty quickly with sports schedules and lessons!

I don’t pretend to have the perfect formula for how many activities are just right for a child and family. But I have put a lot of thought into it, as our family manages work life and home life with 4 kids. Though we’re still a work in progress, here are a few thoughts to consider as you’re faced with all the sign-up sheets coming home this fall.

Age-Appropriate Activities

Especially with younger children, goals of early activities should include having fun, being active (in the case of sports), and starting to learn to be a part of a team. Kids younger than 6 or 7 have a hard time grasping rules of the game or paying attention long enough, and they don’t have significant physical skills to devote to sports. In short, it should be fun and low key. Also consider that starting a child in an activity later in life can help avoid burnout and overuse injuries.

Need for Rest & Down Time

Being over-scheduled seems to be the way most adults and kids live these days. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Kids need time to rest and play, even as they get older. School itself takes up most of the day, and then there’s homework, dinner, and family time (more on this later). Resist the temptation to schedule every minute. Childhood is short, and kids need unstructured time to be the best they can be.

Which Activity?

Consider your child’s personality and strengths. Not every child is cut out for competitive team sports. Some have artistic bents. It may take a semester/season or two before something really sticks. Involve your kids in the decision by asking them about their interests and paying attention to what they gravitate toward. Try to resist reliving your childhood through them, or pushing them toward something you thrived in — even if they would make the 5th Miller to play baseball using that same mitt!

What If They Want to Quit?

You sign them up for hockey, get all the equipment, drag them out on the ice, and 3 weeks later, they’re kicking and screaming all the way to the rink. Then what?

Take a step back. Find out if there is any particular reason they don’t want to go (is there a specific problem with another player, coach or teacher?). If they just lost interest or “don’t feel like it,” it’s a good lesson to make them stick it out through the commitment period, whether that’s the season or the rest of the semester you paid for. This is a good time to learn that teams rely on the players being there, and when a month of piano lessons is paid for, they will be attended.

It’s also a good time for a parent to reassess. Is the child over-scheduled? Too tired? At the end of that commitment period, regroup and have a family discussion about what’s the next best step.

Family Schedules

Life is busy. There are many competing demands on our time, and it’s wise to take a look at the big picture when deciding what the next season will look like. Get out the family calendar. Decide as a family how you operate the best and what is healthy for you. Do you have some members that really need time at home to unwind? Is Mom’s travel schedule going to make Thursday evenings difficult? Will it take three cars and a babysitter to accomplish everything scheduled for Saturday?

Decide together what you need. As opportunities come, ask yourselves if it will help you attain what you need, or take you in the opposite direction. Also: is there a way to make the activity more family friendly? Maybe the parent can coach, or take an art class along with the child. Then you have the added bonus of time together and a shared experience. Can two of your children do an activity at the same time? (Less driving!) And don’t forget to plan some free time to just be together.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

Even young kids can start understanding how hard it is to make decisions! Sometimes the best answer is No. Remember, the majority of children will not have a career that starts in one of these extracurricular activities. They will not be irreparably harmed by doing less, I promise.

I know there is a fear of them missing their chance (when everyone else starts soccer at age 3). I know there are 4 year olds participating in 3 sports at once. But do what’s best for your child and family.  You can always go back. If one season ends up to being too crazy, learn from that and do something different next time. Going through this process with your kids will help them be able to assess and make good choices for themselves in the future.

So, there you have it. Our family is heading into a busy fall of soccer and Cub Scouts, work, school, piano lessons, grocery shopping…

…You get the idea. We’ll see how it goes. We may be over-scheduled, or it may be just right. We’ll plan in some family time on our free nights and make Scout nights a family affair. At the end, we’ll reassess and see what comes next.

Here’s hoping your transition to a new, more scheduled season is smooth and full of good memories!

Dr. Amy Maddalena, a Kids Plus Doc since 2006, teaches The Fussy Baby Class and hosts a monthly Expectant Parent Orientation at our Pleasant Hills office.