The Prepared Environment After School, Part 2

Following up on last week’s description of our aftercare programs we also wanted to offer a discussion of after school hours and the many offerings available to families and children outside of school.  At some point, many families will begin to explore extracurricular afterschool activities for their child.  Which activities, how many and how much becomes the central balancing act.  The desired outcome of extra activities is to introduce a child to options that may spark new interest and knowledge or to develop current interests or perhaps to connect with a new social group.  

Childpeace does offer a limited number of extra options for our students each year.  This is in keeping with our desire to support working families who cannot transport their child to an outside activity during the afternoon while also keeping with our philosophy of creating some unscheduled downtime and a more flexible programming approach in our afternoons.  

It is tempting to fill a child’s week with extra classes and sports but of course there is the potential outcome of an overtired child desperately in need of some unstructured time.  The work is to closely observe your own child and family dynamics for signs of over-scheduling.  One sign is that most of your free time involves packing a bag and running to or from an activity. Another sign is an unhealthy stress and argument between parent and child about the activities; yet another red flag is lack of time for individual connection.  I say this as someone who has strayed into these waters and had to find my way back to shore.  Extra activities are best when there is true interest on the child’s side because this interest will be central to the child’s meaningful participation.  Our observation skills can notice if a child is happy and excited before and after an activity or dragging her feet and ‘forgetting’ equipment.  Consider quality over quantity as well.  If a piano lesson 1x/week is enjoyable for the child this doesn’t necessarily mean that adding a musical theatre class is better.  In fact, it could backfire with the child’s response becoming that they no longer want to practice piano in addition to the second class.  With time, that same child may grow to love making music enough that they are ready to consider other avenues for this expression.

Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Pressured Child,” explains that “As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood,” he said. “And nobody knows where that line is.” The real problem, he said, lies with parents, especially highly successful ones who have a high degree of control over their own lives and who try to take similar control over their children’s lives. This leads them to make choices about after-school activities out of anxiety instead of interest in their child’s well-being.  Especially with elementary and middle-school children, he said, parents should be less fearful that their kids aren’t getting ahead and more worried about their overall quality of life.  “Is the child getting enough sleep?” and other essential questions need to be a part of the equation.  Our role as parents is to observe our children and present options, but then respect the child’s desire to participate or not.  While some encouragement is helpful and we do want children to understand the value of committing to a team or learning a skill set, if the resistance is long term then it needs to be respected.

We must also protect our family unstructured time so that we have those wonderful Saturdays of spontaneous cookie making, conversation, walks, game playing, house projects or just being alone.  I know I’ve found that I have to intentionally ‘schedule’ or protect blocks of weekend time for this type of relaxed space or else some other enticing option will fill it.  Family life can become so busy that it can actually be disorienting to not to be on the way to or preparing to be somewhere for several hours. We actually have to work to move into a more present space as a family which means, when possible, also putting away the phones and persistent email/text checks that can undermine the sense of prioritizing the present moment.  However, the results are well worth it.  The well-researched benefits of spending time together without an agenda communicates that most basic and wonderful of all messages, a message that is the psychological backbone for future resilience:  I love just being with you exactly as you are. How great is that!

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School