Monday, May 25, 2015

After school activities - who needs them?

Do your kids do hurling, hockey, French, football, or fencing? Or maybe it’s ballet, boxing, chess or coding? Chances are, if they are over six years old then you (or someone close to you) are ferrying them across town to after school activities any and every day of the week - which is causing you stress and arguments, and costing you a fortune to boot. So stop the mad stampede for a moment and ask yourself: Do they really want this? Do you? Who really needs after-school activities anyway?

I was at a lovely event the other week put on by Marks and Spencer, where the child psychologist David Carey was speaking. From the moment he started talking he had me hooked - mostly because he was reinforcing what I have long believed myself - that somewhere along the way society has gone wrong in the respect of how we help our children to grow.

A major shift has occurred between when our generation grew up and our children’s generation. Structured learning has become the order of the day and after-school activities have become almost obligatory. Nearly all children now do at least one or two activities a week, not necessarily a bad thing at all, but what about when it’s five or even seven days a week? And sometimes multiple activities on a single day thrown in for good measure?

David Carey says 
It is through play, and most importantly free play, that children develop social and emotional intelligence
But when is this free play happening?
As the age for starting school creeps ever lower we are teaching younger and younger children to sit still, hold a pencil, read, write, behave... when really they are not psychologically ready to do those things. Children of 4, 5 and 6 should actually be learning through play. Just ask those clever Scandinavians. 

After school activities are perpetuating this loss of free play so our children are being ferried from one organised activity to another without giving them the time to create, develop and evolve many of the skills they should. 

It is through play that we learn to get along with others. It is through play that we learn to understand others. It is through play that we learn to understand ourselves. And it is through play that we learn about language, maths and greater learning
                                                                                                            David Carey

As he so rightly pointed out - success in life rarely comes down to just grades and intelligence and certificates - there is a whole spectrum of social and emotional learning that is integral to how our children get on in life. 

And this particular type of learning happens when children are left to their own devices. 

So what happened to grabbing your bike and calling for your friends? Or bouncing a ball against a wall for three continuous hours? Or making mud pies. Or doing handstands. Or being bored?

Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent, believes that a more hands-off approach to parenting actually teaches children to be more self-reliant and capable, but I’d go even further than that. In my eyes, it’s when kids are left to their own devices that the magic happens. That’s when the creativity is born and the memories are made.

A study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Ireland which looked at the lives of 8,500 nine year olds as part of its Growing Up In Ireland study bears out this belief. It found that “the ‘hurried child’ whose social life is as closely timetabled as their school life can experience stress and exhaustion. They may also become less creative, unable to fill their own time, and find it difficult to interact with peers outside the confines of structured activities.”

After-school activities can be a great addition to a child's life - but like all things it is when they are done in moderation that the benefits come. We really shouldn’t be trying to fill each and every precious hour of our kids' lives with them, tiger mothering them through their precious childhood years. Otherwise, when do they get to discover the joy of discovery?

And yes I know that we all only want what's best for our kids - but maybe society is now giving us the wrong signpost as to what that actually is. Maybe it's time for us all to jump off the treadmill.

So apologies to those whom I have offended here - I'm sure you'll have your revenge when you son or daughter is CEO of the world and mine are out sweeping the streets and still living at home. Although I am counting on at least one professional footballer after all those weekends spent pitch side.  


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