When it comes to choosing extracurricular activities for a child, or picking the best summer camp, some parents choose a focus for their child early on: “we’re a Little League family” or “all of us play stringed instruments” can even be a big part of their family identity.
For my family, I chose to take an approach informed by an understanding of brain development: the brain (and body) to develop well need both novelty and repetition, and the ability to learn in places we feel safe. And we need some down time for relaxation and fun.
When we try new things, we stretch ourselves, applying past learning in new ways to accomplish new goals. This gives us more new skills to apply to future challenges. We also have lots of opportunities to find new things that we love doing.
When choosing activities, I also keep in mind the multiple intelligences approach. I want my children to develop in all areas: music classes to build musical intelligence, story time and theatre classes to build linguistic intelligence, wilderness classes to build naturalist intelligence, sports for kinesthetic intelligence… a little of everything to build their brains and bodies.
When we have the chance to do the same thing again and again, we have the chance to build mastery. To get really good at a physical skill. To build a deep knowledge of a topic that we have a passion for. To explore all the facets of that interest. Where novelty gives breadth to their learning, repetition gives depth.
If you’re a more authoritarian style parent, you might choose the thing you want them to excel at and focus there. If your parenting style is more permissive or authoritative, you may follow their lead. (A permissive parent may be more willing to let them quit if they get bored, an authoritative or authoritarian parent is more likely to push them to stick to it and build their persistence as they build their skills.)
Personally, I try for mostly breadth before age 10, and then specialization after age 10 or so. I feel like that’s enough years to expose them to all sorts of experiences and skills. But around 10 is when it starts getting harder to be new to a skill – for example, if you join your first soccer team at age 10, you may be playing with kids who have been on soccer teams for five years already.
Safety and Belonging
We all learn best (and have more fun) in settings where we feel safe and feel like we belong. (When we feel safe, our brains produce the hormone oxytocin, which creates a high degree of neuroplasticity / openness to learning.) So, when choosing activities, it’s worth keeping this in mind. Some people choose a local club / YMCA or parks program that offers LOTS of different activities in the same venue and where they’ll often encounter the same kids again and again. We go to the same family camp every year, where our son has tried out: lagoon swimming, row boating, ping pong, hiking and more. Some families have their kids always attend programs that their kids’ friends are doing.
In addition to novelty and repetition, our brains and bodies also need down time! We need time to process and integrate all that new learning. Time where no one else is telling us what to do but we get to decide can also lead to creativity and independent decision making. So, resist the temptation to over-schedule your child’s every minute in pursuit of maximum brain development and college application resume building. Make sure you give them the downtime too.
What does this look like?
This is my experience… I won’t claim it’s the only or best way to do anything, but it is a sample of how this approach can play out.
During the school year, my kids typically do a couple of extracurricular activities. Usually, that was one physical activity – soccer team, swim lessons, dance class – and one that was more cerebral – theater class, music lessons, art classes, science class or coding. And the other afternoons and weekend days are down time. (For my youngest, it’s also been church every Sunday morning which includes both spiritual learning and fun playground time or game time.)
During the summer, they usually do 3 or 4 weeks of camp, a few weeks of family vacation or camping, and the other weeks are totally laid-back, do anything you want to do at home weeks.
For all three, we did lots of novelty up to age 11 or 12. For my oldest, at that point, he wanted to focus fully on theatre. So, from then on, it was all theatre! (Well, there was that one year where he surprised us by joining the middle school tennis team when he’d never before played tennis…) But what I found interesting was how his diverse background played in: in one show, they had to mime shelling peas… it was clear from watching the kids that he was the only one who had actually done that before! When they needed someone to roller skate – he was one of the kids who knew how. All the things he had done before informed this new focus.
My middle child continued to pursue diverse interests: one summer was herbal medicine, fashion design, and electric guitar. She has a computer science brain that loves to gather data and find patterns, so the more data, the better! There were a few times during their adolescence that both my older kids lamented the fact that they had friends who were “experts” in something – baseball, equestrian skills… because that had been their primary in-depth focus since childhood. My kids went through brief periods of wishing they’d done that, but then came out the other side happy to have had the diversity.
With my youngest, we tried to do as much of this approach as we could, but he is autistic and when he was younger would easily get overloaded / overstimulated by too much input, so we chose fewer extracurriculars and shorter programs (half day camps vs. full day camps, etc.) Just as he gained the ability to do more, we went into pandemic lockdown and we had fewer options for a few years – I feel like we’re still sort of finding our way back from there, but last summer, he did the theatre camp, family camp and swimming lessons he had done in previous years and he tried the completely-new-to-him ultimate frisbee camp. And I continue to feel that this balancing of novelty and repetition is the right approach for us.
Now, I have to acknowledge my privileges… I know not everyone may have the same options I do. I have the blessings of living in an area with a huge array of children’s activities, and also of having income and work schedule flexibility which allows me to make these choices. I know that what I just described is not within everyone’s reach. But even within the realm of free story-times, online classes that are accessible in areas where in-person program options are limited, “cheap date” ideas and activities we do with our kids at home, I think it is always helpful to have this some novelty / some repetition approach.
If you liked this article, you might also find “Acceleration or Enrichment for Gifted Kids” an interesting read.
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