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Children's Schedules: Not enough, too much, or just right?

children schedules

Ever since (and perhaps before) child psychologist David Elkind introduced the concept of the "hurried child" through his best-selling book of the same name, parents have been struggling to find a balance between providing their children with every opportunity they can and worrying about harming their child by over-scheduling them.

But how much is too much? What does over-scheduled really mean? The answers have eluded us, and for good reason; they are not easy ones. Experts debate both sides of the argument. There is a wide range of norms across cultures.

The number of activity options for children seems to be expanding by the minute, and, perhaps most importantly, each child responds to a busy schedule or free time in her own individual ways. While many wish there was a simple answer, knowing that each child is unique and that the right approach for one child might not be best for another does give parents some breathing room.

Carefully evaluating both the potential positives and negatives of a full schedule is a great place to start.

Potential positives:

  • Children involved in a variety of activities have the opportunity to meet, work with, learn from, and enjoy many diverse people with multiple perspectives, expertise, and cultures.
  • Many enrichment opportunities and activities not only provide new learning but also enhance children's core learning. For example, art supports science learning or music supports mathematical thinking.
  • Being involved in extracurricular activities can develop a lot of important life skills and abilities such as responsibility, initiative, team-building, time management, and perseverance.
  • A diverse array of activities is available for children: music lessons, team sports, karate, language learning, and more. All of these activities can enrich a child's life and expose them to learning and possibilities that might not naturally occur in their lives.
  • For children who don't always experience success in school, extracurricular activities can provide them with opportunities to find their niche, excel, and build their self-confidence and self-concept.
Potential negatives:

  • When children are rushing from one thing to the other, the learning and benefit can sometimes be lost. Everyone needs time to digest, reflect, and practice new learning before adding more.
  • Unscheduled free time certainly has its benefits as well. Many, including the late Steve Jobs, are strong proponents of unguided creative free play citing that free play builds imagination, creativity and innovation. A busy schedule often crowds out these moments.
  • Sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations of their child's abilities or performance. The reality is that most children will never win a scholarship, play in the championships, or be any type of prodigy. That doesn't mean parents shouldn't have high hopes, but they should pair those with fair expectations and unconditional support.
  • Even if your child is enjoying the activities, if the schedule causes you stress it is likely not worth it. Children will always benefit more from a positive stress-free family life than they will from more activities in their day. 
  • A busy schedule can impact a child's overall health. If you find yourself in the drive-thru multiple times a week, extending your child's bedtime to accommodate activities, or requiring hours of sedentary activity to practice, then your child's health is likely impacted. These things may not make a difference if they happen once in a while, but sleep, nutrition, and physical activity are essential for learning, physical growth and development, brain function, and health - much more important than Little League.
  • If a child repeatedly excels at a specific activity it can seem like an obvious positive. But it can also be a negative. If a child only experiences winning or success, she may become less willing to try new things, less able to cope with adversity or losing, and the focus may shift from learning and growing to achievement. Additionally, if children focus in on only one activity too early, they miss an array of developmental experiences.

The next step toward making decisions about your child's schedule is to ask yourself a few questions.

It is important to not only evaluate your child's needs and experiences, but your own expectations and motivation as well. These questions should be answered for each individual child and at least yearly as they grow and change. 

  • Do I allow my child to choose the activities they are involved in?
  • Are my expectations age-appropriate? 
  • Am I able to function as a parent and fan, rather than a coach or critic?
  • Does my child enjoy his activities?
  • Is my child able to experience some success (this doesn't necessarily mean she wins - it means she learns skills, progressively improves, etc.) at the activity?
  • Are the activities intended to enrich my child's life and future rather than solely focus on a specific achievement like a scholarship or winning a trophy?
  • Do the activities put a stressful burden on me in any way?
  • Does the schedule allow my child to still participate in typical childhood activities like birthday parties, a play date at a friend's house, or family gatherings?
  • Is my child able to learn and maintain healthy habits such as eating balanced meals, experiencing daily exercise, getting adequate rest, and for older children, keeping up with homework?
  • If my child wanted to quit his activity, would I be ok with that?
Giving serious thought to each of these questions before your child starts a new activity will help you feel more secure about your choices resulting in a "just right" schedule for you and your child. In the end, the best schedule for your child will be the one you create with their unique personality and interests in mind.

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