From soccer team to student council to Science Olympiad and everything in between, there are an extraordinary number of extracurricular activities available to kids today. Their day remains, however, just 24 hours long. Before your child becomes a member of every club and team, see what the experts say about finding a good balance of extracurricular activities, school, family time and sleep.
Too Much Stress
There are undoubtedly many benefits of extracurricular activities, including the chance to be part of a team, learn social skills, release energy, and develop talents. It is certainly possible, however, to have too much of a good thing. Overinvolved kids and their families can end up overscheduled, stressed out and exhausted.
“Without appropriate balance and parental guidance, extracurricular activities can end up leaving kids overwhelmed. Adolescents especially have a difficult time prioritizing and often find it easiest to submerge themselves into what they enjoy most, even when that means their school work, sleep, or family relationships will suffer,” says Erin Fisher, a therapist at Individual and Family Connection, who notes that kids need guidance with time management and prioritization.
“In an era when we’ve never seen such a stark increase in stress amongst our children, it’s time to hit the pause button and examine our parenting outcomes,” says Dr. Michele Borba, parenting expert and author of “UnSelfie.” She urges parents and kids to think about their ultimate goals, and to not do activities just because they have heard or been told that doing so is necessary to get into a certain school.
“I have no doubt that we all want to do the best for our kids and hope that they succeed,” she says, “but we also need to widen that definition so success also includes qualities on the other side of the report card — qualities such as compassion and empathy which are taking a back burner in our culture’s priorities.”
The right number of activities can be different for every child. “Parents and guardians know their children best and it is important to listen to them and adapt to their needs,” says Cory Stutts, head of middle school at Catherine Cook School in Chicago.
“Some children thrive on a full schedule, knowing what comes next and how their time, creativity and sense of fun will be engaged. Others need more time to just be — to read, imagine, and settle into a rhythm that allows their brains and bodies to relax and refresh.”
Overscheduled But Missing Out
Kids often have jam-packed schedules because they don’t want to miss anything. But in the run from practices to meetings to events, they may be missing out on the opportunity to develop other key skills that come with downtime.
“Growth and learning abound from extracurriculars, but don’t forget the incredible benefits of unscheduled time,” says Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family doctor and parenting expert whose recent TEDx talk on the importance of household chores garnered national attention. “Time to be spontaneous, flexibility to finish a project that took longer than expected without stress, the chance to do chores and do them well … all of these teach life skills kids can’t learn when they’re scheduled most minutes of the day.”
It’s not just chores that don’t get full attention when kids are busy. “Being overscheduled makes it impossible for an individual to give their best self to anything they are doing. Additionally, overscheduling takes away from self-care and self-reflection time,” Fisher notes.
Many parents worry about kids not being engaged and failing to use their time constructively, but facing a little boredom from time to time isn’t all bad. “Time at home being bored is not wasted,” says Stutts. One of the matchless qualities of childhood (and something for which many adults long!) is the sense of timelessness, which can be discomfiting or delicious depending on the day.
Also, family time is often jettisoned when kids become overscheduled. “It is easy to begin thinking of carpool time as family time, but I strongly encourage families to schedule specific time and activities dedicated to family time on a regular basis,” says Fisher, explaining that all family members, even teenagers, benefit from having a balance of work, play, friends and family.
For teenagers, a full plate of extracurricular activities often means they will miss out on the chance to have a job, be it one with a set schedule or something more casual like babysitting or lawn mowing. Working as a teenager can be a very valuable learning experience, according to Gilboa.
“Jobs teach teens how to relate to adults, how to do what they don’t feel like doing, and how to treat all people with courtesy. It’s hard to overestimate the benefits,” Gilboa says, explaining that lessons learned while on the job range from punctuality to the importance of a good work ethic.
Finally, while some kids would be more than happy to do only extracurriculars and forget about school, they need to leave time in their schedule for studying. “While colleges don’t want a one-dimensional kid who only studies, extracurriculars don’t get kids into college,” says Jill Kirby, an independent educational consultant and owner of Kirby College Consulting, which guides families through the college search. “Ultimately, grades are what’s going to get your kid into college.”
What Are Colleges Saying About Extracurricular Activities?
The Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently released a report entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions.” Colleges voiced their support for the report, with dozens of college admissions counselors and deans, including those at Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago, endorsing it.
The Washington Post summarized the report with this headline: “To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving.” The report says that the college admissions process “should both clearly signal that concern for others and the common good are highly valued in admissions and describe what kinds of service, contributions and engagement are most likely to lead to responsible work, caring relationships and ethical citizenship.” Making Caring Common plans to work with schools to implement the recommendations made in the report in the coming years, though some colleges are already doing so.
Borba emphasizes that the focus on kindness and caring is a good move, not only for the communities that benefit from student involvement but also for students themselves. “Our kids must get our message that we want them to be good, caring people,” Borba says. “The latest research confirms that learning empathy has surprise advantages for our kids: It is a key predictor of success, relationships, resilience happiness, and employability.”
“Service opportunities — if tailored to the child’s passion — can also be a wonderful way for a child to learn to give back and acquire leadership skills,” she adds.
Many high schools already require students to perform service hours, and Kirby notices that students often end up getting more out of their service experience than they anticipated. She advises students to look for service projects that are not common and to seek out a chance to be hands-on and aligned with interests they already have. For example, her kids love soccer and enjoy volunteering with TOPsoccer, a community-based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities. “My kids never miss any of those sessions,” says Kirby. “It gives them joy and they can see how they are helping.”
In addition to looking for applicant activities that demonstrate concern for others, colleges also want to see activities in which students have a genuine interest. Kids shouldn’t do an activity because they think it “looks good” on an application. “Colleges are experts at spotting [those] doing something to check a box versus having a true passion for it,” says Kirby.
“Students may not know what their passions are but they should be looking for them, so as a freshmen or sophomore, they should try a lot of things,” she advises. But she cautions, “Try everything doesn’t mean stick with everything. Just expose yourself and then narrow it down.”
Kirby recommends that students pick several activities and go to the first two or three meetings, noting that the initial meeting may not provide enough exposure to get a feel for an organization. After attending several meetings or events, students can then select a few of their favorite activities and get really involved in just those.
Kirby advises that colleges look for progression of involvement and prefer to see higher involvement and leadership roles in a few groups rather than minimal involvement in a large number of activities.
The Bottom Line
“Do you love it?”
The experts all agree that this is the single biggest question to ask your child about an extracurricular activity. Kids shouldn’t be doing activities because they look good on an application or to check a box. Childhood is too short for that. Rather, kids should find activities that interest them, spark joy or ignite a passion. Doing so leads to happy kids in the short term, and enables them to discover and develop those passions, laying the foundation for future success.
“Finding out that you love making art, or that coding comes easily, or that athletic competition fires you up like nothing else — these can be huge discoveries that shape an adolescent’s emerging identity,” says Stutts, who points out that many adults found their vocations or passions because of something they experienced during their tween or teen years.
“When it comes to children exploring extracurricular, the old Nike motto ‘Just Do It’ should not be encouraged,” says Fisher. “Instead, it is important that a child do what they love and love what they do.”