The Overscheduled Child: How Many After-School Activities Are Too Many?

When was the last time your children came home from school and had a couple hours to play freely in the backyard or go out for a bike ride before starting on homework? If your kids’ schedules consist of multiple after-school activities like dance classes, art school, swim lessons, religious school, soccer practices, volunteering and tutoring sessions, then after school down time might seem like a foreign concept. If that’s the case, you might want to ask yourself: Are my children overscheduled?

The Overscheduled Childhood Culture

In today’s competitive world, it’s not uncommon for children to feel overwhelmed and pressured because of their overscheduled lives. Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap,” explains, “Enrolling children in too many activities is a huge problem. Parents feel like they aren’t doing a good job if they don’t sign their children up for a variety of activities exposing them to sports, culture, religion and everything else under the sun starting at a young age.” But then, “the children are under so much pressure to compete with their peers and achieve success,” says Rosenfeld.

What Do We Sacrifice When We Overschedule Our Children?

Yes, we want our kids to socialize and learn new skills. However, when we overbook them, they suffer. Here are just three aspects of our children’s lives that get pushed aside when we overschedule their days.

1. Mental Health

Stress and anxiety play a big role in our children’s lives today. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it’s estimated that one in eight children suffer from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety.

Much of this stress is because children are not getting enough down time. They’re being carted around from one activity to another, unable to calm their mind and simply play. Peter Gray, author of the book“Free to Learn,” ties this lack of free play to the increase in children suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.

2. Creativity

Being creative involves having the time to explore and grow. When we’re creative, we become so absorbed in our work that we reach a meditative state of flow. How will our children have the chance to be creative if they are constantly rushing between structured activities?

Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist, believes that “children these days are so overscheduled that they have almost no ‘nothing time.’ They have no time to call on their own resources and be creative. Creativity is making something out of nothing, and it takes time for that to happen. In our efforts to produce Renaissance children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity.”

3. Self-Awareness

Children need time in their day to simply be themselves. This allows them to get in touch with their emotions and to ultimately figure out who they are and what they want to become. They need calm, quiet moments for mindfulness and introspection. They also need time to explore topics in depth without time constraints, curriculum and scores.

When children are involved in too many different activities, they sacrifice breadth for depth and miss out on opportunities for authentic self-discovery.

How to Navigate Our Children’s Schedules

In the end, it’s all about balance. As parents, we need to learn what our children can handle and what they want — not what we think is best for their college applications. This does not mean you need to take your children out of all their activities. Talk to your child. Choose wisely. Realistically evaluate what extracurricular activities are necessary and which ones are just taking up unnecessary time. For example, maybe a certain activity requires a bigger commitment than the rest of your child’s activities, such as basketball practice three days per week. If this is a priority, then consider eliminating another “filler” activity. Quality over quantity is key here. Another example is if your child is taking dance or theater classes at both a studio and school, then maybe one of those could be eliminated to lessen an already packed schedule. It would also alleviate unnecessary travel time.

The bottom line: Check in with your children, keep tabs on what makes them happy, and be sure they’re getting plenty of unscheduled down time.

Sandi Schwartz is a freelance writer, blogger and mother of two. She writes extensively about parenting, wellness and environmental issues.

Worried about your child being overbooked and burnt out? These are the signs to look out for:

  • Exhaustion, and regular complaints about being tired
  • High stress levels
  • Sudden decline in school performance
  • Frequent headaches and other body pains
  • Anxiety, depression, irritability
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Sudden lateness and missing scheduled activities

About WF Staff

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