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22nd Jun 2015

How Much is Too Much When it Comes to Activities and Summer Camps

Andrea Mara

After-school activities and Summer camps – a great way for kids to nurture talent and have fun, or a tiring, expensive and unnecessary waste of time?

There’s one school of thought that says these activities fall squarely in the realm of pushy parents. Children are signed up for different classes every day of the week, with four-year-olds learning Greek, playing the ukulele, and trying out for the local polo team. An exaggerated example, sure, but you get the picture – the suggestion is that children are being pushed to do too much.

In a recent Guardian piece, George Monbiot talks about playdate coaches in New York, who for $450 (€395) will train young children in the social skills needed to get into the best schools. He also writes about a UK primary school that is “now streaming four-year-olds into classes according to perceived ability”. There are many valid points made about how hard young children are pushed, but it also paints a rather depressing picture of the future, based on very exceptional examples. Most of us are not paying playdate coaches anything – most of us have never heard of playdate coaches at all.

The reality, at least here in Ireland, is probably a little more moderate. Of course, there are some parents who sign their children up for every activity and every camp on offer, specifically with a view to being the best, and perhaps living vicariously through their children’s successes. But I suspect this is a small minority. Most parents who send children to extra-curricular activities do so for a wide variety of good intentions:

Children do activities and Summer camps for health and fitness. With obesity levels consistently on the rise in Ireland, and electronic devices luring kids from garden to couch, signing up for gymnastics or Gaelic or Judo makes sense.

Children do activities and Summer camps because they’re a form of childcare. We have a huge gap in Ireland between end of school day and end of office day, and an hour or two of sports often makes more sense than hiring a childminder. The issue becomes even more challenging during the Summer break, so many parents use camps to fill weeks when they can’t take time off work.

And children often do activities and Summer camps because they simply, desperately want to. Like my eldest child, who is not at all athletic and generally doesn’t like sports, but has decided she really wants to try hockey. So despite the fact that it takes place at 9am on a Sunday morning, I’ve put her name down. This is the first sport in which she’s shown any interest at all, and we’re going to give it a try (while I try to be brave about the Sunday morning part).

Parents are doing their best, and their motives are good. But on the flip side, could too many activities be detrimental – how much is too much?

Doing too much can cause family stress. If parents are rushing to drop and collect; if younger siblings are waiting around while classes take place; if everyone is being hurried all the time, it all becomes a bit of a chore.

It can be tiring for children – the school day, while very short if you’re a working parent, feels long to a four or five-year-old child. Some afternoons they just need to come home and chill out, rather than rushing from one activity to another. And likewise during Summer break, kids may need downtime, without having to get up in the morning and rush to a camp every day.

Too much structured activity can hinder social and emotional development – children need time for free play. This is utterly key to a healthy childhood – play helps children’s social, emotional and physical development, and may be restricted if too much time is given over to structured classes.

And children may not be enjoying activities. While no parent wants a child to quit two weeks in to an expensive term of speech and drama (I speak from experience) it also makes sense to check in with them regularly on whether or not they’re really getting something positive from the class. Above all, extra-curricular classes, clubs and camps should be enjoyable for children.

So if you think your kids are tired or fed up or no longer enjoying an activity, it might be time to take a step back.

Your kids may thank you, and your purse will too. Just don’t tell the playdate coach.


Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.