Too much too young? The af­ter-school dilemma

What should par­ents con­sider in nav­i­gat­ing the maze of ac­tiv­i­ties?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man

Will it be bal­let or bas­ket­ball? Chess or com­put­ers? Scouts or soc­cer? Mu­sic or mar­tial arts? Or could my child pos­si­bly do all of the above? As pri­mary-school pupils set­tle into their new class­rooms, the ques­tion of what they should do af­ter school, where and how of­ten, pre­oc­cu­pies many a fam­ily.

The devel­op­ment of struc­tured af­ter-school child­care, en­com­pass­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to en­rich young minds and bod­ies, is in its in­fancy here. Af­ter-school ser­vices are un­reg­u­lated and un­mon­i­tored; there are no in­spec­tions, no qual­ity stan­dards, no re­quired qual­i­fi­ca­tions for staff and no agreed ac­tiv­ity pro­grammes.

An ac­tion plan for chil­dren aged four to 12 was pub­lished by the de­part­ments of Ed­u­ca­tion and of Chil­dren and Youth Af­fairs this year. The Gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed work­ing group that pro­duced it con­sulted with chil­dren dur­ing the process.

What emerged from that con­sul­ta­tion, says Tanya Ward, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Chil­dren’s Al­liance, was that, gen­er­ally, younger chil­dren want af­ter-school ser­vices to be more like home, a place where they can get warm meals, play with their toys and change out of their uni­forms. On the other hand, she says, “eight- to 12-yearolds are say­ing they want to do more ac­tiv­i­ties like art classes, karate, foot­ball. They like to spend time play­ing in the af­ter­noon, get a snack, do a bit of home­work.”

In the ab­sence of af­ford­able, seam­less ser­vices at the end of the school day, par­ents have to make their own ar­range­ments. Mo­ti­va­tions for sign­ing up chil­dren for ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties range from a need to de­lay their home­com­ing due to work com­mit­ments, to a de­sire to push them to ex­cel at some­thing, to want­ing them to find a hobby that they’ll love.

What­ever the rea­son, a child’s ex­ten­sive list of ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties seems to be a badge of hon­our among mid­dle-class par­ents. And fam­i­lies who can’t fund them fret that their chil­dren are los­ing out.

More than two-thirds of par­ents say they can’t af­ford ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the an­nual Ir­ish League of Credit Unions’ sur­vey on back-to-school costs pub­lished in July. Par­ents re­ported spend­ing an av­er­age of ¤187 per child on th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties – ¤195 in pri­mary school and ¤177 in sec­ondary school.

“Be­cause ef­fec­tively par­ents are sub­si­dis­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, it means they have less money to in­vest in th­ese af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties,” says Ward.

In a sim­i­lar sur­vey con­ducted by Barnar­dos, more than one-quar­ter of par­ents said they spent up to ¤100 on ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties run by their child’s pri­mary school. June Tins­ley, head of ad­vo­cacy with Barnar­dos, is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about “ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar” ac­tiv­i­ties such as swim­ming, which oc­cur dur­ing the school day but still in­cur ex­tra costs for par­ents. Aquat­ics is a strand of the pri­mary PE cur­ricu­lum but of­ten schools can’t ab­sorb the cost of ac­cess to a pool.

Re­gard­less of so­cial class, Tins­ley says, if a child is strug­gling with the very aca­demic fo­cus of the school cur­ricu­lum, par­tic­i­pat­ing in ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties can be re­ally ben­e­fi­cial and gives them an op­por­tu­nity to shine. “When that is de­nied to them be­cause of cost, they are go­ing to feel very dis­en­gaged with the school sys­tem.”

Parental con­cern about chil­dren miss­ing out would seem jus­ti­fied by re­search that has mined the lon­gi­tu­di­nal study Grow­ing Up in Ire­land (GUI). An ERSI study on be­half of the Arts Coun­cil last year found chil­dren who par­tic­i­pate in artis­tic and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties cope bet­ter with school­work and have more pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards school later on than those who are less en­gaged.

In track­ing progress of 8,500 nine-year-olds, those who fre­quently read and at­tended classes in mu­sic, dance or drama, were iden­ti­fied as hav­ing im­proved con­fi­dence to cope with school­work by the age of 13. They were also hap­pier, had re­duced anx­i­ety, bet­ter aca­demic skills and fewer so­cio-emo­tional dif­fi­cul­ties.

An­other piece of re­search on GUI data, pub­lished in 2012, con­cluded that chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds may lose out aca­dem­i­cally if they do not have ac­cess to the same kind of ac­tiv­i­ties as their mid­dle-class peers.

How­ever, the study, car­ried out by Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin and the ESRI, also warned that be­ing in­volved in too many ac­tiv­i­ties can­cels out some of the ed­u­ca­tion ben­e­fits.

What should par­ents look for in an ac­tiv­ity? Ju­nior in­fants

Par­ents of ju­nior in­fants should prob­a­bly stop here. Four- and five-year-olds have more than enough to cope with in ad­just­ing to the school day, and need down­time and un­struc­tured play af­ter­wards.

Se­nior in­fants

If you are itch­ing to give your ju­nior or se­nior in­fant an early start in, say, for­malised mu­sic, sport or drama tu­ition out­side school, pro­ceed with cau­tion.

First class and up

Gen­er­ally, first-class up­wards is time enough, agrees ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist Deirdre Grif­fin (deirdregrif­fin.ie) who, as a mother of three chil­dren, has both professional and per­sonal views on the sub­ject.

With a phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity such as swim­ming, the ear­lier you get them used to the water the bet­ter, she says, but that need not be through very struc­tured ses­sions. “I took my kids out of swim­ming lessons be­cause they were get­ting so up­set. I just com­mit­ted to tak­ing them for a fun swim once a week; if they want to go back to it, grand, but I want them float­ing.”

What ac­tiv­ity should you choose?

In pick­ing a hobby, per­haps the most im­por­tant first step is to think about what drives your child, what makes them light up, ad­vises Dr Moira Kennedy, an ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist and direc­tor of the Chil­dren’s Clinic (thechil­dren­sclinic.ie) in Dublin. “By en­cour­ag­ing them to be­come in­volved in an ac­tiv­ity they are in­her­ently in­ter­ested in, they are of course, more likely to be mo­ti­vated to go every week and, most im­por­tantly, to en­joy it.”

How much should they do?

As to the ques­tion of quan­tity, “there is prob­a­bly a fine line be­tween strik­ing a beau­ti­ful bal­ance of mu­sic/arts/sports ac­tiv­i­ties and ‘over­schedul­ing’ our chil­dren to the point of ex­haus­tion,” she says. “As a psy­chol­o­gist, my ad­vice would be to step back and ex­am­ine your child’s weekly sched­ule and look at the qual­ity of life of the whole fam­ily.”

Make sure their ac­tiv­i­ties are not pre­vent­ing them get­ting enough sleep, in­ter­fer­ing with fam­ily meal times or de­priv­ing you all of un­struc­tured time to re­con­nect and en­joy be­ing to­gether.

“Every fam­ily is dif­fer­ent and the con­cept of be­ing ‘too busy’ means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” she says. “So long as qual­ity of life is main­tained for all, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter if your child has one or many hob­bies.”

Def­i­nitely not one every day and even two ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties is a lot, says Grif­fin, who also ac­knowl­edges that for some par­ents they are a child­care op­tion. If they are di­rectly af­ter school, in the school build­ing, that takes less ef­fort and mo­ti­va­tion to at­tend than go­ing home and then hav­ing to get out again.

How­ever, “what a child can do in their free time at home is re­ally im­por­tant – child-guided ac­tiv­i­ties,” she stresses. It is also worth con­sid­er­ing whether the child needs to join a group to do some­thing, or could you do it as a fam­ily?

Out of school

The pop­u­lar­ity of Scout­ing, which is open to both boys and girls from the age of six, and needs par­ents as vol­un­teer helpers, is

grow­ing in Ire­land. The num­ber of par­tic­i­pants has risen from 35,000 in 2007 to 50,000 to­day, re­ports Kieran Cody, com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­mis­sioner of Scout­ing Ire­land, scouts.ie. Scout­ing, and also Girl Guides, irish­girl­guides.ie, which was fea­tured in Health+Fam­ily last week, en­ables chil­dren age five up­wards to learn new skills and de­velop re­silience through fun, out­door ad­ven­ture, as well as to make friend­ships and mem­o­ries.

A lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of child devel­op­ment in the UK found that join­ing the Scouts or Guides ap­pears to help lower the risk of men­tal ill­ness in later life.

Sci­en­tists from Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow uni­ver­si­ties re­ported that about a quar­ter of the al­most 10,000 par­tic­i­pants in the Na­tional Child Devel­op­ment Study had been in the Scouts or Guides, and this group was about 15 per cent less likely to suf­fer from anx­i­ety or mood dis­or­ders at age 50.

Low-cost ac­tiv­ity

Ward, of the Chil­dren’s Al­liance, be­lieves more par­ents could be avail­ing of low-cost op­por­tu­ni­ties that th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions, and oth­ers such as Foróige, can of­fer chil­dren. “They are sub­sidised a bit by the State and it is im­por­tant the State con­tin­ues to do it,” she re­marks, oth­er­wise they would be out of reach for many fam­i­lies.

Mu­sic Gen­er­a­tion – mu­sic­gen­er­a­tion.ie – has a vi­sion of giv­ing all chil­dren ac­cess to high-qual­ity mu­sic per­for­mance ed­u­ca­tion. Co-funded by U2, it is cur­rently work­ing through 12 lo­cal mu­sic part­ner­ships and is ex­pand­ing into nine more ar­eas.

One free op­tion to look out for, or even to seek for your child’s school, is the Be Ac­tive Af­ter-School Ac­tiv­ity Pro­gramme – be­ac­tiveasap.ie – for first- and sec­ond-class pupils. Run by trained teach­ers with the help of par­ents in 830 pri­mary schools around the coun­try, it mir­rors the PE cur­ricu­lum (mi­nus aquat­ics) and is funded by the HSE.

Hav­ing evolved from a pi­lot project in four schools in 2008, ASAP is the re­sult of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween ed­u­ca­tion, health and sport pro­fes­sion­als, ex­plains its na­tional co-or­di­na­tor Paul Friel, and is cur­rently be­ing in­de­pen­dently eval­u­ated.

Over the com­ing weeks, some pri­vate providers – the Gai­ety School of Act­ing to men­tion just one – will of­fer free taster ses­sions. Oth­er­wise, it’s pru­dent to at least ask to sit in as ob­servers on a po­ten­tial ac­tiv­ity, but it still might turn out, down the line, that this is not one for your child.

Rea­sons to give it a miss

“If a child is pres­surised to con­tinue with an ac­tiv­ity they don’t en­joy, it can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive,” says Kennedy. How­ever, don’t re­gard fin­ish­ing an ac­tiv­ity as a fail­ure, but rather “it cre­ates an op­por­tu­nity to try some­thing new, ex­cit­ing and dif­fer­ent”.

Grif­fin be­lieves that ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties “should not be the cause of dis­tress or pain”. Par­ents need to ask them­selves is it es­sen­tial and is it of ben­e­fit? And also re­flect hon­estly on whether they are vi­car­i­ously get­ting their kids to do ac­tiv­i­ties on their own be­half?

Some ar­gue that chil­dren should never be al­lowed to quit lightly, oth­er­wise they won’t learn to per­se­vere with things they don’t like. While that makes some sense to Grif­fin, she also be­lieves it is im­por­tant to teach chil­dren to walk away from things that don’t feel good. “Yet we are drag­ging them to things”. “For me there is a par­ent-child trust thing – I can’t bring my child to an ac­tiv­ity and look across the hall at them with tears in their eyes, or un­peel them from my leg when we ar­rive. I am not pay­ing for that.”

And she wouldn’t be the first par­ent left with a child’s leo­tard in mint con­di­tion for sale – worn only once.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: MARC O’SUL­LI­VAN

Time out: above, mem­bers of the Wex­ford Youth Theatre cel­e­brate the con­tri­bu­tion of youth arts to the lives of young peo­ple and to Ir­ish so­ci­ety; be­low, Ni­amh Cuffe, Niall Bren­nan and Fiona Bren­nan from Er­ri­gal Groove Orches­tra in Done­gal.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARC O’SUL­LI­VAN

Flex­itime: Right, mem­bers of Kerry Youth Dance group.

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