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How Many Activities Are Good for a Child's Mental Health?

A very busy schedule may threaten some children's wellbeing while others thrive.

Key points

  • It's best to negotiate with your child and ask them to help decide how many formal activities to be in.
  • Children can burn out when they are pushed into too many activities.
  • Unstructured play is a great way for children to learn life skills.

A couple and their 6-year-old son were visiting last weekend. The weather was perfect for summer and the boy drifted away from the adults as we sat for a late afternoon snack. He quickly found the stream that crosses our property and began building a dam, then later wandered to the basketball court that is in front of our home where he found other children from our neighborhood playing. Watching the boy navigate his way around my house and structure his time for himself, I found myself thinking about how unusual it was to see a young child so self-directed in their play. Here was a youngster doing almost exactly what I would have been doing at his age. No programmed activity and no screens. All of that seemed at the moment like a quaint snapshot of bygone days.

Children from middle class communities now spend much of their time in structured activities. With the school year starting, families are making strategic decisions about which activities to enrol their children in, and how many. Is there, in fact, a right number?

With children’s rates of anxiety continuing to remain abnormally high, parents and caregivers are struggling to find the right balance between excessive programming and unstructured time in a child’s life. While there is no right number of hours for children to be in activities, my work has taught me that we need to negotiate with children and let them participate in making the decision for themselves. Children, after all, will vote with their feet. The lethargic child who groans at the thought of heading out to play basketball, or refuses to practice the piano before their weekly lesson, is likely communicating something about what they need and what they’re not getting.

There is a fine dance here. Sometimes a child requires extrinsic motivation to do what’s in their long-term best interest. Some gentle nudges by a parent to encourage a child to be on a team is not a bad thing, as long as the activity is something the child can expect to do well at or has expressed interest in. Too many activities and a child risks burnout. Too little, and the child may find themselves under-stimulated and relying heavily on screens to amuse themselves.

Here are a few things to consider when deciding which activity (or activities) to enroll your child in.

1. Organized activities are only one way children develop physically, psychologically and emotionally. Informal play is also a valuable source of skill development such as self-regulation, creativity, independence and problem solving. Be sure to offer your child a balance between formal and informal play opportunities.

2. When offering a child the opportunity to participate in a structured activity, monitor the child’s level of engagement. Are they waiting at the door to go? Or are they withdrawn and moody? Do they talk about what they’ve learned and are excited to practice on their own? Or are they somber, resistant to communicating and have to be pushed to practice between activities? Reading a child’s body language, more than their words is an easy way to know how much busyness a child wants in their life.

3. Ask yourself if the activity you’ve chosen for your child is a good fit with their ability. Or is the choice of activity more about your preferences as the child’s caregiver? Even if you enjoyed playing hockey as a kid, that doesn’t mean your child has to play, especially if your child might be better at curling, speed skating, or dancing.

4. Remember that activities are also a way to teach children life skills. Is the activity that you’ve enrolled your child in something that will help the child fit in with their peers, family or community? Is it a skill that is key to their success or well-being (like learning to swim)? In colder climates, that means children should learn to skate. In some communities, that means a child who can hunt or fish. For some families, it’s having command of at least one instrument or learning a language. When such activities communicate to a child that they belong then the value of the activity is much greater than if it is a “have to do” at the end of a child’s already long day.

5. It’s important to know that unstructured play can have its own challenges too. What the heck does a child do who isn’t in multiple activities when every other child in their neighborhood is? I’ve heard grandparents tell their grandchildren to ‘go outside and play’ without acknowledging that in many American and Canadian communities, there are no other children outside in unsupervised play.

That 6-year-old visiting my home eventually started playing basketball with some neighborhood kids who were just a little older than him. In a friendly gesture, one 8-year-old asked my friend’s son what sports he played, to which the boy had really no answer. The family had just arrived in the city and they tended to prefer camping and hiking to the routines of structured activities. I could see the boy searching for an answer, perhaps confused by the question itself. Roaming through the forest and building dams across streams obviously wasn’t the right answer to the question.

That 6-year-old will eventually be enrolled in some formal programming, as much to introduce him to more children and to get him some of the skills he’ll need to play with his friends. But at least for that moment in my yard, without any formal programming at all, he looked quite happy to do his own thing.

Maybe we parents and caregivers need to remember that not all play that benefits a child’s psychological growth needs to be supervised.

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