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The after-school activity merry-go-round

The Times
As children's evening activities stack up, Helena Pozniak ponders where to draw the line

When my four-year-old son emerged from his yoga class shouting "I won", alarm bells began to ring. When we were young, if you liked riding your bike or hitting a ball, you just did it. You didn't take an exam in it, attend weekend competitions or have private lessons. For many, Cubs or Brownies was the social highlight of the week.

These days children don't have space to breathe; we're scared of boredom and they are so busy, busy, busy. Tuesday? It must be fencing. We still (myself included) sign up our children for a treadmill of "improving" classes to the point where a pair of six-year-olds can't fix a play date after school.

A new survey of 1,000 British children, aged 8-15, by American Express Insurance Services, found that 39 per cent were involved in academic activities outside school, such as extra maths. The researchers said that 12 per cent took part in at least four after-school activities a week - such as cubs or horse-riding - and 30 per cent at least three.

"Being bored hasn't ever been an issue in history before," says Sue Palmer, a former head teacher and the author of Toxic Childhood (Orion Publishers). "Grown-ups left children to it and they just got on with it, messing about, hanging around, learning to be creative."

So why do we do it? Certainly, after-school activities aren't intrinsically evil, and many children relish the competition, physical workout or satisfaction of doing something well. In the same way that every good Victorian was expected to paint a watercolour, today's - mostly middle class - children are acquiring skills to equip them for a successful life. And since sport and art have become so squeezed in the national curriculum, we want to compensate.

There's even evidence from the US that children who do a range of classes benefit later in life. Researchers at Yale University looked at children aged 5 to 18 and found that those who did after-school activities were healthier, more emotionally secure and did better at school.

However, it's the sheer volume and intensity of activities that concerns many educators and parenting experts. Do we know where to draw the line? It's not unheard of for three or four-year-olds to supplement pre-school with a schedule of French, singing, gym, tennis and more. By the time they're in school, activities can stack up to two a night.

Asking why can reveal an ugly side of raising children. "Parents suffer from peer pressure far more than kids," says Noël Janis-Norton, a learning and behaviour specialist and the co-director of The New Learning Centre, northwest London. It's like a social arms race and you don't want your child to lose. The rise in working parents is often identified as one of the causes of this modern phenomenon. "It's guilt. We fear that we are limiting the child by not offering opportunities, especially if you're not home until late," says Ruth Coppard, a child psychologist within the NHS. "Giving children all the chances, especially if you pay for them, is a way of showing how much you love them."

And when children are home they are far less likely to sit down for a jolly game of Monopoly or knock on friends' doors as to be in front of a console or screen. We're losing confidence in simply letting them mooch about and they are forgetting how to, says Palmer. "They need real unstructured play, loosely supervised with clear boundaries."

Problems with children who have been over-stretched often do not emerge until secondary school, says Francis Gilbert, an author and teacher at the Coopers' Company and Coborn School in Essex. "Primary school children tend to be enthusiastic and up for new things. But, particularly by the sixth form, it's very apparent if a child has been pushed too hard. When an adolescent realises that they're not enjoying whatever the activity, they give it up and get into conflict with parents."

When it's right to push a child

So should you push a child who's reluctant to attend classes? Yes, if it's a skill you believe is essential; swimming, for example, which has been squeezed in state schools. Learning that it takes more than a week or two to get good at something isn't a bad lesson. Neither is discovering that you enjoy something after all. "Look at school," says Janis-Norton. "Many children wouldn't go if it wasn't compulsory, but they get a huge amount from it." And how much is too much? Some schools urge parents not to sign up children for more than two activities a week and this seems to be a happy maximum for most parenting experts.

"You want to give your child a whole host of wonderful experiences - just not all at once," says Janis-Norton, adding that early on the skill levels in all activities, such as playing ball, are so basic that parents could teach children themselves. Coppard says: "It could be a lovely bonding experience. One of the best evenings we had was a spontaneous salsa session at home. It has become a wonderful shared memory in the way that a class can never be."

After stopping all school activities three years ago, Sally Marlow, mother to Cameron, 11, and daughter Thea, 8, doesn't miss them.

"We'd all become basket cases doing all the extracurricular arts and sports. It was so fraught, it wasn't about enjoyment at all. We were all shattered by the weekend. So we threw money at the problem. I moved them to a private school, which scheduled loads of creative time and covered all the sports. Now I pick them up from school and that's it. We play cards, do homework, watch telly. If we occasionally do something it's because we really want to do for its own enjoyment. But we were lucky to be able to spend our way out of the problem."

It sounds so obvious to say "be guided by your child", but that's the trick. Let them try new things, but not all at the same time. As Gilbert states in his book Parent Power (Piatkus Books) research shows that the best athletes and sportspeople have had a rounded education in PE before specialising at about 13 or 14.

And if you're in any further doubt about the damage you are doing your child by denying him or her a full timetable of scheduled activities, remember this: in the playground, they are more impressed by your recall of Dr Who than what grade piano you're on.

The New Learning Centre, www.tnlc.info

How one mother went 'cold turkey'

Here's what happened when a mother of four, Caroline Kirkman, of Itchen Abbas, in Hampshire, agreed to spend a fortnight at home after school with her four boys, little television and no computer games

At their busiest last term her boys Noah, 11, Jacob, 9, Nate, 6, and Joel, 1, had up to three activities four nights a week and Saturdays were packed with tennis. She still takes them to up to two clubs a night four days out of five.

"I'd already begun streamlining activities this term; before that it was insane and I did nothing but shout. Once a week I'd have a 15-minute gap between activities in which to feed them. The thought of two weeks at home with the children did fill me with dread. I can't stand them helping in the kitchen. But when I suggested it they were really up for it. They weren't bothered at the thought of no TV or computer games.

"My husband, Phil, was worried about how I'd cope. He was keen on the 1950s housewife ideal, though: gin and tonic and a cooked meal. Normally I throw sandwiches or pasta together for us because I'm so busy with the boys.

"For the first week, I fixed an activity; craft or cooking for every night. I like to plan, otherwise you are left in the lurch. We did crispy cakes, played Happy Families, did baking, art and craft. By Thursday I was exhausted; homework has suffered because they've wanted to do so much.

"Normally I am super-organised. I've had to step back. I can be a bit of a control freak, so the idea of watching the older boys slowly peeling carrots was frustrating. I hit a low point when I thought that they'd broken my whisk. I heard myself yelling, ‘I'm doing all this stuff for you and you can't even be good for me'. I got over it, though.

"During the second week I left them to it much more. I've been so impressed with them; they played at things I'd never thought. They made a great den with duvets; normally I'd have banned them from the spare room. They made cakes, and cleared up, all by themselves, with Noah leading; I've been impressed by how mature he has been. I wouldn't have let them do that in a million years before.

"In the past I'd have used television as a babysitter. They have missed it a little, but they haven't even asked for computer games. They've really enjoyed doing things together. I want them to be close when they're older and the only way is if they play together and learn about compromise.

"Knowing when you arrive home at 4pm you don't have to get in the car again is marvellous, and Phil and I have got our evenings back rather than chasing around collecting the boys from activities.

"I couldn't let go of after-school stuff completely though; they get so much from them. I asked the boys how they would feel if they never did clubs again and they went pale. Jake reasoned that they might get bored and hit each other if there were not enough interactive activities; yes, he used those words. Noah wants to restart clubs after next week. But I will have much more balance.

"And I'll let them get more involved in the kitchen."

And here's what the boys thought...

Noah I've missed clubs and television a bit, but apart from that it was cool. The best thing has been learning how to make cakes. Sometimes Mum got a bit angry.

Jacob I haven't really missed clubs. Building a den was my favourite thing. I think Mum has enjoyed it. Nate I liked painting and listening to songs.

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