How much is too much when it comes to kids’ activities?

In a few weeks the Bear will start swimming lessons. But we’ve also promised her that we will sign her up for soccer. She’s wanted to play soccer for the last two years. Until now, we felt that she was just too young for organized sports.

So, here I am writing a blog where I theoretically frown on too much organized activities for kids. But our family is about to embark on a spring season of swimming lessons and soccer for our five-year-old – at the same time. Which begs the question, how much is too much?

My sister has this story. On a whim, she signed up her three-year-old daughter to take highland dancing because it was an activity that was part of a city-sponsored outreach program and, therefore, inexpensive. The plan was to have a Saturday activity just for fun. My niece loved it and she was quite good at it. Suddenly, my sister was looking at the next session of dance lessons (more expensive this time because she would need to join the dance academy) and investigating the specialized outfit that her daughter would have to wear. Then my sister started to worry that she hadn’t started her daughter in dance earlier – was she already behind?

And I think that that sort of sums it up. We (parents) get swept into children’s organized activities without really thinking it through. Psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too hard?, says, “Childhood is for preparation. It’s not a performance.” Incidentally, my sister had a reality check and didn’t join the dance academy. Instead, she signed my niece up for gymnastics, part of the same inexpensive city-sponsored outreach program, and she signed her up ‘just for fun.’ In other words, she knew where to draw the line.

I know that there are many bloggers and readers who rally behind the position that you do what is right for your family. But I disagree. We should talk about the limitations we place on our children’s lives. Because even in the name of ‘just for fun’, we are placing parameters around children’s lives when we put them in organized activities.

How much is too much?

Some will argue that organized activities build skills in sociability, teamwork, learning how to be physically active on a regular basis, etc. But still, this is our [adult] definition of not only what skills we think our children should have, but our [adult] idea of how they should acquire these skills. And don’t we tend to disguise adult skill acquisition under the moniker of ‘fun’? We applaud the ‘fun’ that happens in organized activities and dismiss the ‘fun’ that children have on their own.

Tom Hodgkinson of The Idle Parent, shuns any organized activity (except for swimming):

The modern parent fills the child’s days with enclosing activities. From the enclosure of school we enclose them in the car, and then we drive them to more adult-organized activities: ballet class, football, extra French, drama club, all in the service of making them into competitive entities…

I remember that the best places to play were old rubbish tips, where we could find springs and fridges and old bits of car. The best places were the places we had discovered for ourselves. We played in the margins. We didn’t need adult-designed play parks. I remember even as a kid being keenly aware that there was something wrong with adult-organized fun. It was disabling.

Unfortunately, this post leaves me with more questions than answers. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with the Bear. She really wants to play soccer. And perhaps we need to give it a try. Maybe tackling our first organized sport as a family will help us better define what is too much. The driving force is the Bear, not us. I’m just conscious of the pressure to be part of the world of organized activities without asking the all-important, ‘why?’

To be continued!

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15 Responses to “How much is too much when it comes to kids’ activities?”


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  12. 12 Michelle March 3, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Swimming lessons are my only non-negotiable. Once my boys can swim well enough to save their lives they can choose whether they’d like to continue. My oldest is a social butterfly, loves to be with other kids and really enjoys team sports. This kid is like he mama, likes to keep busy, be *gasp* competitive, and have a few commitments peppered throughout the day or week, just to give structure to the days. It’s not about disliking idle time or my being uncomfortable in idle times with my children. Conversely, my youngest is much happier at home, spending time to himself, with family members, or with one or two of his friends. He’s not interested in any sports or activities right now, and may never be. I use their personalities to guide our choice in activities and number of concurrent activities.

    Just like the dieticians suggest that we do at the dinner table, I put the activities on offer and they choose whether or not to participate. There is no pressure, but we offer plenty of encouragement and support when they decide to pursue something. We do, however, require that they follow through on any enrolled commitments – no backing out or deciding not to go because they “don’t feel like it.”

    In terms of numbers, it’s all about balance in our house. Can an activity fit around work and school commitments? Is there enough free play time? With me at home and G in half-day kindergarten, getting to soccer twice each week and swimming lessons once a week doesn’t seem to be a strain. There’s plenty of time left in our days to hang out, read books, paint a picture, take walks, build with Lego, and whatever else strikes our fancy. We’ll see if that changes next year when his school days get longer or if R develops interests that would require more of our time.

    • 13 Mama Tortoise March 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      Swimming is one of my non-negotiables too – as a former lifeguard/competitive swimmer, it’s kind of a must for me! I agree that personality has alot to do with it. Like the fact that the Bear wants to play soccer because her friends are playing soccer, not because she has any interest in the sport! SHe just hates to miss out on things. I’m starting to think that as long as activities are child-led and don’t become all-consuming, they have their place. At the moment, I think that for the Bear and Banana, one activity at a time is a reasonable limit.

  13. 14 patientpenguin March 3, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Do you think parents put kids in sports ‘for the kids sake’ or do you think there is an element of parents having difficulty being idle with their children? The discomfort parents may experience just hanging out and interacting with their children- being creative and engaging in yet another round playing school- drive them to put their children into organized activities where the parent can be ‘idle’ and the children are ‘active’. It becomes a way to fill the time…answers the question ‘what are we going to do this weekend?’

    • 15 Mama Tortoise March 3, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      Hello PatientPenguin – yes, I totally agree! I think of our neighbour who has an only child. They seem to have loads of activities to go to and I often wonder if it is simply because being at home, idle, with one child can be a bit of a drain on the parents. I wonder if idle parenting isn’t meant for large families! Much easier to ignore the kids when the siblings play with each other. I’m starting to think that full-on idle parents wouldn’t put their kids in activities. But I don’t think MJ and I are full-on idle parents. Perhaps the limit is one activity at a time – with the caveat that it MUST be wanted by the child?


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