Extracurricular activities does wonders for school-age children, from teaching them new skills and helping them socialize, to developing their passions and providing a constructive outlet for their energy (not to mention act as a stress reliever from school-related stressors).
Of course, this isn’t even mentioning that most colleges prefer kids with tons of extracurricular activities on the grounds that this makes them well-rounded and accomplished individuals. However, with the sheer amount of activities now available to children, and with the pressure that college admission committees put on these kids to have as many extracurricular activities as they can have, what was supposed to be fun, after-school activities, becomes just another form of homework they need to do.
Speaking of homework, high school students on average need to finish around 3 and a half hours of homework per day. This is on top of the extracurricular activities that kids are ‘encouraged’ (read: pressured) to have, leading many to debate whether homework or extracurricular activities are more important, or if they’re doing too much of either.
Keeping your child’s body and mind engaged in fruitful activities is all well and good, but how much is too much? And if you had to choose, which one is more important: homework or extracurricular activities?
It turns out, you don’t have to choose one over the other, and knowing when it gets too much for your child is as easy as paying attention to how they’re responding to both.
Structured Free Time vs. Unstructured Play
In order to acquire a balance between homework and extracurricular activities without putting too much stress or pressure on a developing child, many psychiatrists and educators advocate finding a balance between what they call ‘structured free time’ and unstructured play.
Structured free time is when a child is given free time outside of school work to pursue certain passions and activities, but with those activities having a structured schedule that helps maximize the free time they get. This is in contrast to unstructured play, where kids are given free rein to do whatever they want in an allotted amount of time.
Debates rage on about whether or not structured or unstructured free time is more or less beneficial to children, but one thing is for sure: finding the right balance between a structured schedule and allowing your child the autonomy to pursue what they want is the right way to go.
Having structured free time helps your child transition from homework to extracurricular activities without losing the discipline and rigor they learned from the former. An after-school schedule that gives children enough time to finish their homework and engage in their extracurriculars optimizes the limited time that they get while allowing them enough time for sleep and rest. More importantly for older students, structured free time goes a long way to preventing dangerous behaviors like substance abuse or violence.
Meanwhile, allowing your child to have unstructured play is equally important, as this teaches them critical life skills like autonomy, self-direction, decision-making, and independence, not to mention allowing them the opportunity to socialize with children their age. Artistic pursuits have been proven to help children with their self-esteem and creativity, all of which leads to a healthier, well-rounded identity development.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Of course, too much of a good thing can be bad; overscheduling homework and extracurricular activities can lead to undue stress on children. While stress is a natural part of life, too much of it, especially for a developing child, can do so much more harm than good.
Overscheduling too many things at any given time spreads out a child’s physical and mental focus too thinly, leading to a decline in mastery, the exact opposite of what parents try to achieve when they schedule homework and extracurricular activities. The fatigue alone can be bad enough, but that kind of mental exhaustion can severely affect teenagers and can potentially lead to depression or anxiety.
Often, parents see all the great extracurricular activities that are on offer and sign up their child for as many as they possibly can, in the hopes that college admission committees see this and favor their child better. However, for admission committees, it’s less about how many extracurricular activities your child goes through, but more of the quality of their focus, both in accomplishing their homework while having extracurriculars after school.
That’s the whole point of being a ‘well-rounded individual’: having a balance of academic excellence, creativity, athletics, socialization, and leadership. It’s not a numbers game, it’s all about looking it at how a child manages to juggle friends, school, and sports while finding the time to rest in between.
Finding the Balance
All of this information begs two questions: one, how much homework is too much homework, and two, how many extracurricular activities is too many? While there is no hard number for either of these things, many child psychologists give a very simple answer: if it starts interfering with your child’s life, i.e. if it cuts into their socialization, family time, as well as rest and recreation, then it’s probably way too much.
When it comes to choosing homework vs. extracurricular activities, obviously homework should come first, but this doesn’t mean that your child will no longer have time for their non-academic pursuits. However, this also doesn’t mean that your child’s extracurricular activities should interfere with their studies. And neither of those two should interfere with your child’s social and familial life.
As parents, you’ll need to be able to communicate with your child openly to determine whether or not they’re getting too stressed out with everything they’re doing and how you can fix it. Remember: no two kids are the same, some might do well with a highly structured play type of schedule, while others might require more unstructured play. Try to alleviate the pressure of college admissions by reminding your child that focus is better than quantity, and that while homework is important, so is being a well-rounded individual.
Finding the balance between homework and extracurricular activities then depends on your child, and finding that out is as simple as talking to them and communicating with them.