The extracurricular balancing act

"We're a nation of exhausted and over-stressed adults raising over-scheduled children." - Brene Brown

In a recent article by Wendy Tuohy in The Age, she cited new research by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute which indicated that decreasing the number of extracurricular activities children and teenagers participate in would benefit the development of social skills because too much structured time may erode their chance to develop important characteristics, such as coping on their own.

The COVID pandemic and the Lockdowns faced in Victoria and globally have brought further weight to the argument about the need to find a balance between the extracurricular activities and periods of unstructured time for children and teenagers. 

During Lockdowns and ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID, parents have not been able to schedule activities for their children and teenagers such as netball, tennis, dance, swimming and instrumental lessons. For some children and teenagers, prior to the pandemic, their scheduled extracurricular activities could take place four or five days of the week and on some evenings. Such a schedule of activities could, as Victorian Children’s Clinic Lexi Frydenberg suggests, have an impact on both sleep and wellbeing and may not enable children to develop an ability to be still and relax.

Concerns around the scheduling of extracurricular activities have been top of mind for researchers even in pre-pandemic times. A 2018 study of children in North-West England found that 88% of the children involved took part in organized activities on four to five days each week, with 58% doing more than one in an evening. Lead author of the study, Dr Sharon Wheeler highlighted those parents initiated and facilitated their children’s participation in such activities in order to help their children in life and demonstrate that they were ‘good’ parents. The parents hoped that through extracurricular activities, their children would improve their health and fitness, develop friendship groups and improve their employment prospects.

The importance of unstructured time

Professor Harriet Hiscock from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has noted that an increasing number of children are struggling with basic skills such as empathy, friendship and coping with change or disappointment because they have little unstructured and unsupervised time in which they faced small challenges without adults to smooth them out. 

In addition, there is a danger that children and teenagers may lose their ‘spark’ for the one or two activities they most enjoy. For young people and adults, it is important to be able to find those periods of ‘Flow’ when we become completely absorbed and focused in an activity. During such periods of ‘Flow’ we not only feel a great sense of enjoyment and satisfaction in that activity, but we are able to block out the external environment around us. 

The COVID Lockdowns presented significant changes for every family, including more opportunities for children and teenagers to ride their bikes, spend time with their families, play outside, cook and read for pleasure. Parents made a concerted effort to decrease screen time at the end of each school day and ensure their children were able to relax and have some quiet time. 

While we all understand that parents spent many hours at home supervising remote learning and undertaking their own work, this was offset, to some extent by the removal of hours in the car each week, ferrying children to extracurricular activities. Family time, unstructured time for play and relaxation become more of a norm within family units. 

The co-curricular program at Lauriston

At Lauriston we offer a broad range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities for our children and girls. As we began Term 1 our planning included the re-introduction of many extracurricular activities for our children and girls. Our purpose was to re-ignite the interests of the girls and foster a positive mindset. Through broad extracurricular activities at school we also hope to obviate the need for parents to add further such activities for their children and teenagers. 

While I am happy that we are doing our best to establish ‘normality’ for the girls, my concern is that we help them to find a balance between the extracurricular activities they participate in and the unstructured time they need to spend with their families and have periods of quiet time to recharge.

Our girls have many opportunities to participate in many different activities, some of which foster a lifelong love of sport, music, public speaking or community service. Participation and finding activities that give you satisfaction and enjoyment are important for our personal development and wellbeing. The balance lies in not taking on so many activities that one burns out and loses interest or satisfaction. 

I do not believe that the number of extracurricular activities a girl or young women participates in makes her more accomplished or will help her to stand out from others when she applies for a tertiary scholarship, part time or full time job. I would suggest that committing to a smaller number of activities demonstrates persistence, a genuine interest, and a desire to continue to improve. Being able to speak with genuine interest and understanding about your love of public speaking or playing the violin or playing netball shows any prospective employer that you know how to be a responsible member of a team who is competent and confident. 

Parents and School share a common aspiration in wanting to provide opportunities to our children and girls. Academic studies, physical activities and cocurricular activities all work together in supporting the wellbeing of our girls and helping them to become lifelong learners and engaged citizens. Such an aspiration should be tempered by an understanding that our girls will better manage all aspects of their lives when they have sufficient sleep, the opportunity for quiet time and encouragement to feel enjoyment in the activities they choose to participate in. 

Susan Just

Principal, Lauriston Girls’ School