'If your child is whining at you and saying they're bored, that's fantastic' - Psychologist on activites for children
When it comes to activities for kids, there’s never been more choice for parents following a day in the classroom. But getting the right balance between filling your child’s time and meeting their educational needs is no easy matter, writes Alex Meehan
For working parents, finding something to do with the kids when they finish school for the day is a serious challenge. The working day generally doesn't end until 5pm or 6pm, while school can finish significantly earlier and filling the time between the two can be a difficult proposition.
As the academic year stretches out, homework clubs and other after-school extracurricular activities can be a godsend, but getting the balance right between filling the kids' time and meeting their educational needs is no easy matter.
The range of activities on offer has grown enormously in recent years. Most schools offer some kind of on-premises solution, ranging from study groups to sporting activities like soccer, GAA and athletics, and these can be a great way to make sure your children have structured time in their day to get their homework done and blow off some steam after a day at the desk.
Some schools are taking this further and organising a range of social and developmental activities that parents can take advantage of for their kids, such as mindfulness classes, yoga, languages and cultural study programmes.
And, of course, there are also the traditional after-school activities like scouts, martial arts and formal sports training that can be taken advantage of. Regardless of what activity is on offer, it's important all instructors and group leaders are Garda-vetted and parents have confidence the kids are safe and well looked after at all times.
Ross and Mel Good are based in Rathfarnham, Dublin, and have two children, Mia (6) and Elle (3). After-school activities are a big part of the family's routine.
"During the school year, Mia has karate on Mondays, swimming on Tuesdays, ballet on Wednesday and swimming and football on Friday. Elle is a little younger so she attends groups - 95pc of the time I'd be the only dad at the baby massage and swimming classes with her," says Ross.
Ross says he loves being a full-time stay-at-home dad and while activities help fill in the day, he's adamant that after-school activities aren't a break for him.
"These classes are a benefit purely for the kids. While Mia is in a class, we stay and watch her as Elle is a handful on her own, so she has to be watched constantly. So I don't personally get a break, but it's an opportunity for the girls to develop whatever the skill they're practising is, and I get to see that skill develop.
"The problem is knowing what's enough or what's too much? Eventually, interest in these classes slows down and the kids change their minds about what they like doing so you have to ask should you fill in that time?"
Ross blogs about being a stay-at-home dad at thestentedpapa.com and has a new business producing customised board books for babies at bookywooky.ie. His blog name stems from his health issues.
"I was working in sales in the tech sector but in 2016 I found out I had heart disease and had to get stents put in, and that led to re-evaluating my priorities, and looking after my kids seemed like the most obvious thing in the world," he says of his decision to step back from his job.
"Being a stay-at-home dad is far harder than anything I experienced in the workplace, but it's also more rewarding."
Janice Casey Bracken and her husband Brendan live in Tipperary with their two children Cormac (8) and Hannah (12). Both kids attend scouts, practise taekwondo and swim on a weekly basis.
"As I am not able to drive, getting to these activities can be challenging, but we have a very good support system and between friends and parents the kids always make each activity," says Janice.
"They're hugely important for the kids because they help with social interaction, building confidence, self-awareness, independence and helping them work as part of a team. These are all skills that benefit them as they grow older."
These arrangements aren't without their down sides, however.
"They're expensive and attending these activities means we can't plan anything else to do most nights, and family meals must be structured around them, but that's a small price to pay when you see your kids blossom with confidence and see them being able to fulfil key team roles as well as personally develop," she says.
According to Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist specialising in working with children and families, when it comes to filling kids' time, less is definitely more.
"Children need and benefit from after-school activities, but I also see through my work the results of children that are hyper-stimulated and spend too much time running from one organised activity to another," she says.
"They're incredibly busy and go from a long school day to one or even two activities afterwards. Doing an activity every single day after school creates a very long day for a child."
Of course, Fortune recognises that in organising activities, parents want only the best for their children. "They want them to grow and develop and be challenged by sport, music, art or whatever the activity is. But I'd prefer parents to give them more choice. We need to empower our children through their activities.
"It could be scouts, or swimming or rugby each term - they should pick something and stick out the term that was paid for," she says.
That teaches important life skills, but also she says it's incredibly important parents get comfortable with the idea of their kids doing nothing at all. "We live in a digital world that has robbed us of our appreciation of the value of boredom. If children don't experience boredom, they don't have time to assimilate everything that's happened in their day, they don't get to process their emotions through play and they don't get to discover what it is they like to do and what gives them pleasure," says Fortune.
Not having an opportunity to be bored is also said to interfere with the development of the capacity for creativity and solution-oriented thinking.
"If your child is whining at you and saying they're bored, that's fantastic. Tell them it's wonderful and that you're looking forward to seeing what they come up with to occupy their time," says Fortune, who adds that the start of a new school year is an ideal opportunity to put a new routine in place.
"After-school activities can be great, but they're also expensive. And parents can put themselves under a lot of pressure to do the best for their kids, but developmentally, that doesn't mean filling their time. Let them find their own way, with time on their hands."