Q: My daughter always wants to sign up for every after-school activity available. How many should I let her do? She's seven. KD, Herts.
The deluge of leaflets for extra-curricular activities at the start of each term, brings a dilemma many a modern parent shares with you. Where once a weekly session of Brownies or Cubs sufficed, now there's a whole industry of after-school classes, from Karate and Kumon to ballet and Mandarin.
Pros and cons
At best, such pursuits equip children with extra skills, interests and confidence. At worst, 'over-scheduling' can leave them exhausted, overwhelmed and without a clue how to entertain themselves for more than a nanosecond.
What's more, ferrying kids from one class to another isn't much fun for mums, dads and other carers, nor does it do much for family finances, given such activities can cost up to £150 a term.
What's the norm?
Whilst clearly you shouldn't decide how many activities your daughter does based on what others are up to, it can still be interesting to see what the norm is. In some areas of the country (particularly certain affluent, metropolitan ones) it seems children spend all their 'spare' time in one class or another (breaking off only for a couple of judiciously chosen play dates a week). If you don't sign up to all and sundry, it can feel your child might be disadvantaged in later life!
For my book (see below), I surveyed parents of primary school children, asking how many activities their sons and daughters did weekly during term time. The results were as follows:
11 did one to two hours
34 did more than four hours weekly.
Amounts tended to increase as children got older.
How many is too many?
So that gives you an idea of what others do, for what that's worth, but how can you decide how many activities will be right for your daughter?
Firstly, consider her stamina levels. Does she tend to get very tired after school? As she is seven, presumably she is moving into junior school/Key Stage 2 this year, which could mean a step up in academic pace, and more homework. With this in mind, it might be worth erring on the side of caution and signing her up for slightly fewer activities this term, until you can see how she gets on and whether tiredness is more of an issue as she adjusts.
Another key factor is how much time she gets to just hang about at home - children whose lives are over-scheduled, with too many activities, never learn to find their own things to do and to cope with boredom. Surely that's just as important a skill as those taught in any of these classes?
A child your daughter's age might already spend 30 to 32 hours weekly at school and could have another couple of hours of homework per week on top of this. Adding a few activities makes that as much as most adults' working hours.
So on the whole, two or three activities per week after school is plenty for most primary school age children. It wouldn't hurt to squeeze an extra in if there's a lunchtime club at school, or at the weekend, if you really think she will benefit.
But if you decide to do none at all, you won't be short-changing her if her after-school activity consists of nothing more than a TV programme, a snack and some good, old-fashioned playing.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.