Monday, June 05, 2006

Prioritizing outside activities

Many kids these days are over-scheduled. Children and parents are constantly faced with tough decisions, trying to prioritize their many outside committments. Our family isn't under quite the same pressure to prioritize, because by virtue of not going to school our kids have 6 extra hours a day for scheduled activities. Activities are also of added importance to homeschooled kids because they're often their sole opportunity for group learning. By some standards my kids do an awful lot. I counted a month or so ago and discovered that with all her various musical ensembles Erin was participating in eleven different activities. That's dropped away a fair bit now that the seasons have wrapped up for some of them, but still ... it's a lot.

However, despite our all the extra time we have, and the added importance of group activities in our lives, there's no doubt that we still need to prioritize to some extent. I think one has to find the principles that fit with one's family and work from those. For us, the principles are:

  • travel -- minimizing travel expenses, environmental impact, risk and time
  • efficiency -- ensuring that what travel we do serves more than one child in more than one interest, or that the activity can be arranged to require minimal sacrifice from other family members in terms of taxiing, waiting, etc.
  • affordability -- can we afford this activity over the longer term?
  • growth -- is this the sort of activity that will potentially allow for long-term healthy growth in mind / body / spirit
  • commitment -- can I foresee my child and myself becoming;remaining committed to this activity over the long term?
  • balance -- does this activity provide or maintain a balance in the life of our child and family? balance between down-time and activity, family time and 'other'-time, physical and sedentary activities, etc.

We discuss these principles as a family and make collaborative decisions. We take this decision-making process quite seriously. Involving the children helps them understand all the considerations and what the trade-offs are when a new activity is added.

I know that a lot of parents believe that sampling a broad range of activities as a young child will awaken the child's particular interests and aptitudes and provide a range of experience. Personally I've found that we don't need structured activities for my kids to sample the vast majority of things. I tend to believe that it's better to sample broadly in a casual sense, as a family, without signing up for structured activities, and to reserve the structured activities for activities I deem exceptionally important and valuable, for which my kids seem to have an affinity, and then to expect long-term commitment and follow-through. ("Expect" as in "I fully expect that this is something that will continue to inspire you and fulfill your needs over the long term", rather than as in "Young lady, I expect you to continue with this, and that's that.")

Generally speaking I like each of my kids, by the age of 5 or 6, to be involved long-term (meaning from year to year) in something creative and artistic, and something concerned with physical/athletic skill development. Even without school, we find it works best if each child has at least two, and preferably three, days a week with no outside activities scheduled (though rarely, due to overlapping seasons, we've wiggled around that guideline a little). We find that without a minimum of 3-4 hours of "down time" per day creativity, emotional resilience and family relationships begin to suffer. We don't pursue competitive-track activities because (a) I believe competitive situations are risky for children because they haven't yet formed a secure sense of their own identity and because (b) I know that such activities tend to escalate rapidly in terms of their demands for money, time and travel as the child becomes 'successful' -- I'm leery of that 'slippery slope'.

So those are our principles and our practices. For the most part this works for us.

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