Do Kids Really *Need* Activities? A Therapist, a Coach and an Educator Weigh In

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It begins with a mom group text: Soccer sign-up is on Tuesday. Who’s in? You go to reply, then hesitate. Isn’t gym class enough? What about the fact that my daughter is already enrolled in Taekwondo? Or does she need more, MORE?

Are there benefits to loading kids up with extracurriculars? Or should they just roam the neighborhood playing in nature and solving their own problems of boredom? We talked to three people—a therapist, a tennis coach and an early education curriculum specialist—to get the DL on what’s worth it…and what’s not.

Activities are worth it, but the number one goal should be team-building

Yes, you want to expose your kids to different activities at a young age to help them discover passions and develop skills, the experts agree, but these activities are really a gateway to something that matters much more: Teamwork and feeling a sense of belonging, says Donna Whittaker, vice president of curriculum and education, at Big Blue Marble Academy.

“It’s about getting your kids to find what makes them happy and what they actually enjoy doing,” she says. But along the way, it’s important that they have the chance to experience socialization and collaboration and practice focus and rule-following.

Sports are obviously a logical place to start: “Engaging in athletic activities is beneficial for young kids because they are able to develop key physical skills [as well as social ones],” says Nicholas Nemeroff, coach and director of tennis operations, at Court 16 in Brooklyn, New York. But this kind of collaboration can also come from any outside-of-school activity where children work together. Think: choir, Lego camp, debate team—anything with a group component.

Be wary of applying too much pressure

Repeat after us: Activities are not about achievement, especially throughout elementary school. Jill Daino, a therapist for Talkspace, which recently launched resources specifically for parents, is clear that you should never push your children too hard. “This period of life is about exploration, having fun and building connections,” Daino says. “It’s important to expose your child to activities, but to also understand them: If you know [your child’s] not ‘sporty,’ lean into their actual interests, even if they are different from yours.”

Beware of schedule overwhelm

Daino maintains that downtime is just as crucial as activities for brain development. “Having a packed schedule can be draining and also removes space for [kids] to figure out what they enjoy since they are jumping from activity to activity every day,” she says. Bottom line: You want your kid to have room to decompress, by doing things like spending time with friends, reading a book in their room or even just vegging out with a little Minecraft.

That said, everyone is different. “Parents need to identify what works for both their child and family,” says Whittaker. Sometimes it’s not the kid that’s overwhelmed by the schedule, it’s the parents! In either scenario, it won’t be a beneficial experience if it’s too much.

Allow them to quit, within reason

Let’s say your child enrolls in gymnastics, but doesn’t love it, and wants to quit after two weeks. Whittaker says you should stick to your guns, and have them complete whatever the original agreement was, perhaps a season or a semester. After that, be flexible and give them the opportunity to try something else, since, as Daino says, “If your kid is miserable in an activity, none of the skills can be readily learned.”

Also, remember that it takes time—and a certain level of proficiency—for activities to become a long-term passion. Encouraging your kid to stick with something they clearly like, but need time to get better at, can be beneficial.

Ok, but what if my child really doesn’t want to do any activities. Is that bad?

Probably not, says Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University and author of the parenting book The Family Firm. While she maintains that extracurriculars can be a childcare solve (a value that shouldn’t be ignored) or can have tangible life benefits (say, swim class “so they won’t drown”) there isn’t a ton of data that elementary school activities vastly impact life success.

For instance, she notes that there is a correlation between participating in sports at an early age and having a commitment to physical activity that lasts into adulthood. But she also notes that there’s no evidence that sports counteract the risk of childhood obesity. (In fact, kids who do a lot of sports have a tendency to eat more snacks post-practice, which can have the opposite effect.) Likewise, she says there’s little evidence that music lessons impact brain development any more than a whole host of other activities—including playing Tetris!

Like the experts we spoke to, she does tout the socio-emotional benefits of activities, but it’s important to remember that this type of team-building doesn’t have to come from baseball or drama club. As long as your child has regular opportunities to connect and work towards something with peers, that can be a start.

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Rachel Bowie

Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...
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