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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/ 1/2009

THE GROUP: The Extracurricular Activity Problem

By Valerie Strauss

Today The Answer Sheet’s group of moms discusses kids and after-school activities. Please relate your own experiences in the comments section. Email The Sheet with issues you’d like us to address, and let us know if you want to join The Group.

Participation in extracurricular activities has risen in this decade and sports is at the top of the list. Thirty-one percent of students in kindergarten through eighth grade took part in 2005, according to the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In what activities do your children participate? How much is too much? Do you let your child choose their own activities? Is there anything they do you wish they didn't? Or something you wish they would do that they won’t?

This Week’s Group Members:
Meg Arcadia is a teacher currently homeschooling a 10-year-old boy, and a mom with a 3-year-old son.
Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada is a legislative librarian with one child in a D.C. public school public and a 3-year-old starting in a program at a charter school.
Peg Willingham works for a non-profit health research organization and she lives in Virginia, where her daughter attends a public high school.
Linda McGhee is a psychologist, school counselor and professor, who lives in the District and works in Bethesda. Her son is in fifth grade in a Maryland private school.
Jamie Shor founded and operates the PR Collaborative in the District. She lives in Montgomery County, where her son is in elementary school and her daughter is in middle school.
Valerie Strauss is The Answer Sheet.


Your question catches me at a moment when I am feeling especially snarky about this very subject. My high-school age daughter has sports practice from 5 to 7 pm Monday through Wednesday, then games on Thursdays. If it is an away game, that can mean she is busy from 3:45 until after 9 (which includes pre-game practice, transportation to and from the game, and the game itself). They also sometimes have multi-hour commitments on Saturdays, including fundraising.

I was not involved in sports of any kind in high school, so it’s hard for me to relate to this. I know there are benefits to involvement in team sports, but I am beginning to think this is way too much. We hear that being involved in sports will de facto cause your child to manage his or her time wisely and get homework done during the brief windows available after school, but it’s starting to feel like schoolwork is perceived as secondary to the all-consuming sports commitment.

This question catches us in the middle of what is absolutely our busiest season. My son is wrapping up his travel baseball team season and is playing football while my daughter plays soccer and participates in lacrosse clinics.

We are a sports-oriented family. We enjoy it on many levels, from participating to watching. At times our fall schedule does seem overwhelming. We joke that the one night we can expect to have dinner together is Sunday. Having said that, while the schedule makes my husband feel like we are forever in the car (or sitting in a lawn chair cheering), we are big believers in fitness.

The sports my kids participate in are chosen by them. They understand the level of commitment required and know they must go to practice and to their games. If it ever gets to a point where they are lobbying to stay home from either then they will still have to finish the season but that will be the end of that activity.

Strangely, I find when they know they have these commitments they are more efficient with their assignments. If they have an hour or two before a practice, they devote that time to their schoolwork. It seems to work for us.

We try to keep our son’s extracurriculars to a minimum, usually two things. One is always music lessons (piano). The other is usually a sport. There are lots of other activities that I think would be interesting for my son, but he often does not share my enthusiasm. Logistically, with my work schedule, outside events are often difficult. For example, there is a great Boy Scout troop in my neighborhood, but they meet on a Friday evening when the energy level in our home is lowest.

My reasoning for the low activity rule is that he needs down time but, then again, so do my husband and I. Also, having time for school work is a top priority to us.

I have to say that some of the hard core sports leagues outside of school are a little off-putting to me in terms of the gargantuan time and financial demands (travel teams!!!).
Also while most of the parents are nice, I have seen situations where parents are very aggressive and demanding.

I have a 3-year-old child who loves being at home. We had the option of a three-day preschool program versus a five-day program. I choose the three day because he needs enough time in his week to stay in his p-js and play.

On Thursdays he has soccer practice for 45 minutes. It’s obviously not really soccer but more of an opportunity to run around with his friends. It makes him feel like a big kid. I like it when he feels proud of himself!

On Fridays, after school, he has golf at his school. We are going to sign him up for a gym class but not until soccer is over in November. I would love for him to take an art class but the class I found was at the same time as soccer. I asked him if he wanted to play soccer or take the art class. His choice was soccer. I would also love for him to take music lessons and begin a martial art but he is simply too young.

As a parent, it is important to know what is age appropriate and not rush your child beyond his years. Not to mention, all of these class, teams, etc. are very expensive.

We are just starting down this road and I am a bit freaked out by all the possible time and costs associated with extra-curriculars. My daughter has soccer through her after school program, that is generally finished by 6:30. We also participate in a Girl Scout troop on the weekends. This is manageable, but if we really added an intense sports experience I am not sure we could juggle it. Not sure how things will be when we add activities for the younger brother in several years.

I imagine my activities philosophy has few believers in these super-competitive parts:
My two teenage daughters HAVE to go to school and do their very best. They don’t really HAVE to do any activity after school. I never pushed much on them, yet both kids did find their own passions and have full lives out of school despite my relative non-interference.

We activity-dabbled when they were young; both briefly liked ballet, but my eldest quit karate after the first lesson. My husband used to coach their teams in basketball and soccer, but organized sports wasn’t really for them. I can’t say I was sorry.

The one thing I very much wanted my kids to do was play piano. They both agreed to take lessons and then quit; now they play on their own and my eldest signed herself up for guitar lessons. My youngest is very involved with her rock band and likes to stay home; my eldest finds a way to be busy every minute that she is awake.

I confess to having some concern, like Peg and Linda, about what I hear about travel sports teams, but that's a discussion for another day.

Readers: Please tell us your thoughts and experiences. How programmed should kids be after school?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 1, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Parents  | Tags:  The Group, afterschool activities  
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Next: Berliner: Why Rising Test Scores May Not Mean Increased Learning


Extracurricular activities are wonderful as long as it's the CHILD who wants to do it for their own interest, not the parent. I'm a firm believer that whenever some activities become popular (e.g., soccer), that that is a sign kids are in it for the wrong reasons. Many parents shy away from certain activities because they're not comfortable with them or they simply do things that their friends are doing. This behavior fails to help a child develop their gifts.

Posted by: doglover6 | October 1, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

So far we've been lucky enough to have found an afterschool program housed in a community center which also offers a pretty wide range of classes and lessons, so we get everything under one roof. Between my two kid they take dance, swim, theater, and piano lessons. The afterschool program keeps track of all the kids' schedules and makes sure the right children get taken to the right activties at the right time. All I have to do is sign them up and then remember to pack the appropriate clothes in the backpacks each morning (I confess to forgetting a bathing suit last week). I expect that my kids will eventually start asking for activities beyond what's offered by the community center, but for now it really handles this situation beautifully for us.

Posted by: bmld | October 1, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I don't know if 10 is the age that kids want to join everything but my now 11 y.o. girl joined every available club at school in addition to her year round swim club obligations last year. She's slowed down this year but has resumed the running club and clarinet. I don't mind having her try new things. It certainly affords her opportunities I never had but I limit the sports to one. That has been swimming for the past 4 years and it has the potential of taking over our daily lives. We'll continue with it as long as she enjoys it and it doesn't interfere with schoolwork. What troubles me some is that I don't feel like I can pile on housework which would take away more of her free time. I wonder what others feel about that.

Posted by: flabbergast | October 1, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

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