September 9, 2016 4:52 pm
Updated: September 9, 2016 5:29 pm

Extra-curricular activities vs. play: which is better for kids?

WATCH ABOVE: How to keep your kid's schedule from getting out of hand

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Back to school also often means back to a ton of extra-curricular activities for a lot of families.

The Royers in Edmonton, for instance, shuttle their two boys (aged 13 and 11) to between 16 and 18 activities each week. The kids love their lacrosse, hockey, basketball and volleyball, so the parents make it work.

But are organized activities better than unstructured play?

“I think each has their own benefits in moderation,” said psychology professor Suniya Luthar of Arizona State University. “The problem begins when children get scheduled to the point there’s no free time.”

Managing kids’ schedules entirely can rob them not only of their freedom, but also their ability to learn time management skills themselves.

WATCH: Alberta psychologist describes the impact of over-scheduling on kids


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Michael Thompson, clinical psychologist and the author of “The Pressured Child,” is a big proponent of “undirected free play.” He says it’s “the best thing” kids can do.

“It helps their creativity, it helps their stress level, it helps their social intelligence. It is better than most adult-run or adult-supervised activities, though many of those activities are also inherently good or enriching.”

Playing sports can build discipline and camaraderie. But if adult-supervised activities are all kids engage in, Thompson warned “they never develop true independence.

“They never feel as if they have psychological ownership of their own lives.”

Psychology professor William Bukowski of Concordia University also stressed the benefits of letting kids be kids.

“Play is the basis of higher mental function,” he explained. “It’s the place people begin to learn about things like imagination which becomes abstract thinking.”

The goal should be to strike a happy medium between the structure of organized activities and the autonomy of free play.

So whatever parents schedule their kids for, downtime should be high on the priority list. Children should have time to hang out with their friends and family. Even something simple like playing Monopoly together can be beneficial.

“The critical word,” said Bukowski, “is balance.”

He recommends signing kids up for a variety of things when they’re younger to see what they like, then giving them more freedom of choice as they get older.

All the experts we spoke to agreed parents should check in with their kids to ensure they enjoy what they’ve been signed up for.

Luthar said if kids wants to quit an activity mid-season because they’re bored, try to see it through until at least the end of the season.

But don’t force them back year after year if the activity makes them miserable, she urged.

“Doesn’t matter how good they are at it.”

Here are some signs your kids may be over-scheduled, according to the director of Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Alberta, Christina Rinaldi.

Your child is:

  • Irritable
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Forced to do homework late at night
  • Disinterested in the activity
  • Not getting face-to-face time with family
  • Booked or scheduled every minute of the day
  • Unable to find free time

Luthar added that the amount of time spent on extra-curricular activities is less important than the way the activities make kids feel.

“It’s when their sense of self-worth is dependent on the success of the activities and their hearts are not in it…[that it] can become very destructive.”

As long as it stays fun for her boys, Clara Royer will keep up with the busy schedule.

“Just follow their lead. If they are enjoying it and you can make it happen, why not?”

— With files from Laurel Gregory, Global News

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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