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Sunday 24 September 2017

What to do when school is out

John Cradden

There is a lot to be said for signing up your restless youngsters for after-school activities. The list of possible activities seems endless, ranging from learning musical instruments, performing and creative arts, and all kinds of sports.

Many such activities can help boost children's self confidence, provide opportunities to mix with lots of other kids, get exercise, learn new skills and stimulate mind and bodies.

Of course, availability of these activities depends on where you are, but the biggest issue for many is cost.

Ballet lessons, for example, can cost up to €110 a term. Although this is at the upper end of the scale, parents can still end up will little change out of €70 or €80 a term for many other activities.

The bill can add up considerably if any equipment or materials need to be bought.

There is also the big commitment in terms of time. As well as bringing or collecting the child to and from any activity, you may have to attend competitions and related events, and possibly extend the activity during term breaks by signing up for summer, easter or Halloween camps.

"This is a difficult one for parents," says Rita O'Reilly of parent helpline Parentline.

"It's hard for a parent to say 'no' if a child really wants to do something and particularly when friends are participating and one child is left out."

On the other hand, she says, very few people have the money for everything so parents have to make some choices.

For those who have the money and time, it may be worth bearing in mind another common criticism of after-school activities, which is that too much supervised and structured activity can be bad for children.

"Whenever I ask a group of parents what were their favourite times from their childhoods, it is almost always playing with friend outside and out of sight of adults," says Steve Goode, a childcare consultant.

"Too much of children's time is organised and regulated. They do not learn to deal with conflicts and solve problems."

It's certainly a point not lost on Teresa Heeney, a parent of two young teenage children living in Celbridge, Co Kildare.

"Most parents will want their little people to do the standard ballet and soccer, but for the most part the kids don't even know what's going on, except that they're brought there once a week and expected to enjoy it as huge sums of money are needed to take part," she says.

"Most three- to six-year-olds would rather be in a playground, but most kids from six onwards will want to do what their friends do, and most of the time from whatever flyer sounds the most exciting.

"So most of us will have paid for quite a few classes that our little dears probably never wanted to do except for the social aspect of them," says Ms Heeney.

How much parents pay for after-school activities also depends on who is providing them.

"It's a general rule that facilities run by public bodies or voluntary and community groups tend to be cheaper as they do not have to make a profit," says Mr Goode. "Schools also tend not to charge themselves rent etc for activities that they put on."

However, he believes that after-school activities are better hosted outside of the school.

He points to a study by children's charity Barnardos in Europe and the UK, which found that if out of school activities take place in school they tend to be organised like they would in schools.

"Having said that, schools have a great deal of space and resources that should be used by the community during out-of-school hours. It is paid for by the state, so why should children not benefit from it when the school is closed?"

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