Is your child overloaded?

By Drum Digital
19 April 2014

Extramurals are fun and teach kids skills – but it’s vital for them to have time to just hang out, experts say. We give you some advice on helping them choose.

When the school bell rang in the afternoons for Emma McNabb (10) of Camps Bay, Cape Town, schoolwork was temporarily over. Then the other half of her life began – acrobatic Pilates, modern dancing, netball, swimming, choir, horse riding. She’s in Grade 4 at Laerskool Jan van Riebeeck and of course there was homework to do as well. Which is what made her mom realise things couldn’t go on this way.

“I hardly saw her!” says Lize, a Pilates in structor. So she and Emma sat down and made a decision: everything was fun but the horse riding had to go.

“She really enjoys all her activities,” her mom says. “Netball and Pilates are good for her physical development and all the activities give her a break from her schoolwork. But she had to choose.”

This year Emma starts writing exams for the first time, her schoolday gets longer and the academic pressure greater, Lize says. That’s why it was time to intervene. “These days we keep one afternoon a week completely free for her so she can have a playdate with a friend or we can do a fun activity together.”

Lize and Emma’s dilemma is one faced by an increasing number of parents. How much extramural activity is good for children and when do the number of activities become too many? We approached the experts for advice.

Beware of too much: read the signs

Parents should sometimes take a step back and look at all the things their kids are involved with, says Johannesburg play therapy specialist Jodi Lord.

“Ask yourself, ‘How much of this is what my child wants to do and how much is what I want them to do?’ Because so often it’s about parents’ agendas; it sounds so good to say, ‘My child does a, b and c.’ ”

The key should be whether your child enjoys it. Keep the communication going and continue asking whether it’s still fun. “It must be fun; it’s not a job. Tell them, ‘If you don’t enjoy it we can change it.’”

The biggest problem with overfull schedules is that children have little time left to just play, says Johannesburg psychologist Tessa Burnard.

“Having too much structure and too little free playtime is dangerous because the latter is really important for a child’s emotional development.”

The same goes for teens. “It’s not enough just to see your friends at activities. Sometimes you need to hang out too.”

Children will each react differently when they feel overloaded, Burnard explains. “But their being really tired is a red flag. If they struggle to wake up more often, go to sleep earlier than normal or are too tired for homework it might be time to scale down.”

Also take note if their schoolwork suffers because of extramural activities. Check for changes in their marks. This is also what the department of basic education suggests. The department supports the holistic development of learners, but not at the expense of their schoolwork, says spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi. That’s why it advises parents to ensure extramural activities supplement, not hinder, education.

If you decide your children must scale down it’s essential to involve them in the process, Lord says. “Ask, ‘What can we take away so there’s more balance in your life?’ ”

Do as Lize did: talk to your children about their favourite activities and decide together what can be dropped. Young people these days can pack in a lot more than earlier generations, says Pieter Bredenkamp, principal of Laerskool Menlopark in Pretoria. But each child is unique, which is why parental guidance is important.

“They know their children best and must judge what they can and can’t handle.”

Parents should also understand their children don’t necessarily have the same abilities. “One might be better at handling pressure and tackle a variety of things, while the other might need to choose one activity with their parents’ help and focus on that.”

In addition, especially at primary school level, parents should bear in mind it’s not about achievement but about exposure to a variety of skills.

Part of the development process

Experts agree: extramural activities play a vital role in a child’s development. “Every activity develops different skills, which is important for cognitive, social an emotional development,” Burnard says. This goes for older children too. “When the pressure of schoolwork and exams increases, extramural activities are good ways to relax and replenish energy levels.”

Children should engage in various activities in order to develop into balanced adults, Bredenkamp says. “Balance is the watchword: between team and individual participation and between participation and winning. One shouldn’t be emphasised more than the other.”

Activities make the child’s programme fuller but that’s part of the learning process.

“Children need to learn success takes effort. It’s an important lesson. They can also learn to handle pressure, which is something that will help them a lot in the job market in future.”

“Hoërskool Bellville has a saying, ‘An involved child is a happy child,’ ”Nelmari Kemp, a teacher at the school, says. “By participating in activities children learn not only to use their afternoons constructively but also to prioritise and plan ahead.”

Social interaction and feeling part of a club or team are also invaluable, she says. Children get to mix with kids with different personality types whom they might not choose as friends on the playground.

Parents should guard against their preconceived ideas getting in the way of their children’s choices.

“For example, debating isn’t just for ‘clever’ kids – it’s for everyone who likes to talk back at home! And just because mom or dad is tone-deaf doesn’t mean their child can’t have a talent for music.”

My child doesn’t want to participate

The benefit of taking part in extramural activities is so great parents should motivate children who are reluctant to do so, Lord says.

“Play the advocate. Point out the advantages, because children sometimes struggle to see them. You could say, ‘Playing chess means you’ll make new friends, learn more about the game and spend more time with that particular teacher.’ ”

Sell it honestly and suggest a trial period, six months for example, Lord suggests. Burnard agrees. “Often children are just shy or scared. They might not enjoy it the first time but if they persevere they can end up not getting enough!”

It’s also important to know your child. “If he’s more of an introvert, suggest something such as tennis.”

You might have to make it a rule that your children participate in at least one sport or extramural activity. But then let them choose.

If your teen is reluctant to join in, point out that balance counts when applying for university admission or a job, she says. “Yes, academic achievements are important, but it’s to your advantage if you have more to show.”

Parents underestimate how much control they need to keep over their children’s lives in high school. “You’re still the parent; you still have to guide them. Even teenagers don’t always know what’s best for them.”

Kemp agrees. “In my experience girls are more inclined to choose an activity themselves. Parents could perhaps give a little more guidance to teenage boys.”

- Suzaan Hauman

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