How much is too much?

Expert, parents discuss how many organized activities are ideal for kids

Now that summer is on its way, the temptation might be there to throw your child headlong into a slew of activities to keep her stimulated and busy.

But before you sit down at the computer with the family calendar, consider which camp you’re in – do you enrol your child in a bit of everything, or would you prefer to let the kids use their downtime to come up with their own devices?

Although getting kids involved in lots of activities allows them to find what they love to do, recreation expert Steve Nason urges parents to proceed with caution. 

“My largest concern with children’s organized activities (is) over-programming,” says Nason, a senior director at the Dovercourt Recreation Centre, who has a degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies from the University of Waterloo and currently teaches in the Fitness and Health Promotion program at Algonquin College.

“Our goal as parents should be to expose children to a wide range of activities that they would feel comfortable joining in later on,” he says. “My personal philosophy with my own children has been this – all kids should participate early on in learning how to swim or skate, take gymnastics, play a team sport and try at least one ‘art’. Here is why: learning to swim is really about learning not to drown. Canada is full of water… and in the winter, all that water freezes – so learn to skate on it. Take gymnastics to learn basic body awareness – this will help develop fundamental movement skills that transfer to a whole range of future activities and sports. Participate in a team activity, not necessarily sports – join a theatre group, choir or band and learn to work with others towards a common goal. And learn how to paint, draw, dance, or something artsy and creative. All of these will set you up for participating in other activities as you get older. Then simply try stuff out. Don’t aim to be perfect.”

As far as how much downtime kids need, every child is different, says Nason.

“For example, some of the kids who arrive at our afterschool program need a quiet place to relax and chill, to read quietly, draw or play a solitary game or build a Lego creation in peace. Others are amped up, needing an outlet to release energy – they need to be physically active, to be engaged with others, to exert not only their physical selves but also their vocal selves.”

The parents we spoke to agreed, each taking different approaches to suit their children.

Letting the kids decide

“By the time my son was four, he could tell us what he wanted to do or not do,” says Marie Avila. “I go by his wishes right now. I wish he had more interests, but he’s a homebody and introvert and I have to respect that.”

Now five, Avila’s son has said that he would like to learn how to ski. “I’ll register him for lessons at some point,” she says.

Tiara Prud’homme enrolled her then-three-year-old daughter in dance because she had been asking consistently for several months.

“The following year, I automatically enrolled her again and she had a lot of fun but when it came time to participate in the end-of-year recital, she was not as interested and she had become extremely shy. The third year, I asked her what she wanted and she decided not to take dance classes.” Prud’homme’s daughter currently isn’t enrolled in any activities. “She hasn’t asked for anything in particular and a lot of them are weeknights, which is just not doable for our schedule. I’m in no hurry to enrol her in anything else. Perhaps when she’s a bit older and has experienced different things through school or friends, we might try again.”

Prud’homme says her older daughter’s experience has impacted her decisions with regards to her younger daughter. “She has yet to express much interest in any particular activity, and we haven’t enrolled her in anything,” she said.

Both Prud’homme and Avila said that swimming is non-negotiable for safety reasons.

“We’ve used different approaches for each child”

Melissa Ferland has used different approaches for each of her five children, depending on his or her temperament and interests.

“My eldest is in a myriad of activities, drama troupe, choir, voice lessons, diving, contemporary dance and swimming,” she says.  Meanwhile, her third and fourth are only in one activity each. So far, they haven’t compared each other’s lessons, as they’ve demonstrated different interests, she says.

“I prefer imaginative play at home at this point”

Emily Allwood doesn’t plan to enrol her three-year-old daughter in any activities until she is six or seven.

“We do family stuff like swimming, hiking and trips to the museum. That’s enough in my mind,” Allwood says. “She’s three days a week at a daycare centre and gets lots of instruction and entertainment there. I prefer imaginative play at home at this point.”

Allwood finds that her daughter has more than enough to keep her entertained at home. “She uses her imagination. Her favourite game right now is bear cave. She sets up a blanket with elastics on the posts on her bed and hides from bears.”

“I’ve taken the little bit of everything approach”

While she was growing up, Sarah Stone participated in a variety of programs and activities.

“I got to try everything from skating and swimming to horseback riding. I did dance, photography, mixed media art class, writing… and the list goes on.”

Now the mother of a 16-month-old son, Stone has also “taken the little bit of everything approach.” A stay-at-home mom, she’s able to take him to different activities throughout the week.

“Ottawa is really nice for providing us a ton of resources for ‘dipping our toes,’ so to speak,” Stone says. “We’re on a tight budget, but I’ve found if you shop around, often you can find a competitive price for the things you want to do.”

Ultimately, she’d like to find something her son is passionate about, she says.

“It’s good to have a balance”

Monique Sturk Guillouzic’s three kids, ages three, five, and seven, are taking swimming, skating and piano lessons, and her oldest son also has cross-country skiing lessons.

“He feels it’s too busy for him because he also has schoolwork and piano homework,” says Guillouzic. “The skiing and skating will end at about the same time and we will take a bit of a break from the activities. I think it’s good to have a balance – learn some new skills, but then also have free time to enjoy and also learn how to manage.”

Nason agrees.

“If we are talking about older children who have begun to specialize in an activity or sport, parents will notice that the number of times per week they are engaged in that activity is going up,” he says. “Combine that with school and homework and something will have to give and usually that is the breadth of activities they may have previously enjoyed. It will be a matter of making choices which is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “The key is to watch for too many structured activities that put not only stress and exhaustion on the child, but on the parents.”