The pros and cons of extramural activities

Are all those extramural activities essential? Take the pressure off; your child doesn’t have to do everything!

 Even before your child starts preschool, you’re made aware of all kinds of activities that you could be doing with him.

Extramural activities for children can be both a blessing and an inconvenience. On the one hand, they keep children busy and fit, and can offer working parents precious hours of engagement for their kids. On the other hand, some parents find that getting children to a destination at a particular time, dealing with the kit and costs, and taking time off work for parental involvement, can amount to stress and pressure.

So, does your child need to start extramural activities at an early age, or can he come home after school and play his own games and pursue his own interests? If you don’t participate in activities, will you be hindering his development to the extent that he won’t catch up later?

The message from the professionals is encouraging: if it’s fun and convenient, sign your child up. If it is neither of these things, don’t. Your child needs to play, be active and explore in ways that can easily be achieved at home or in your local park. Learning is supposed to be fun, so be sure it is – for you and your child. Read on…

Extramural activities are not essential

The good news is, according to Melanie Hartgill, an educational psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg, that unless a therapist recommends some kind of intervention because your child isn’t developing fine- or gross motor skills, it is not necessary to take your baby or toddler to specific activities or classes.

“From a developmental point of view, small children do not need to do extramural activities, but if there is a developmental delay or a therapeutic need, then, of course, you should,” she says. “I get a bit frustrated because I see people who are pressurised by other parents to do everything, but it really isn’t necessary.”

However, your child’s need is only part of the picture, and Melanie adds that if your toddler or child loves the activity, you enjoy taking him and can easily make the time, then you should participate.

Mastering the juggling act

“There is a lot of time pressure nowadays, and in most households, both parents work. So, for some, these classes are an outlet to engage with their kids,” says Melanie. “They have to be there on Thursday at 3 pm, so they make the time and feel better about themselves.”

What do children really need?

Melanie explains that it’s important your child feels good about himself as a result of the activity. “Whatever you are doing with him, he needs to be emotionally confident. If it’s making him feel bad about his abilities, then there’s no benefit.”

She points out that as children get older, they will have more options available to them in terms of extramural opportunities, but will also have more commitments in terms of homework.

“As they progress through preschool and the schooling system, it’s important to focus on a balance between brain (school), body (sport), and mind (leisure). It’s important for activities to have value – they should be fun, boost your child’s confidence and encourage him to socialise. If you’re just doing it for the sake of it, then there’s not much point. As your child gets older, you can be guided by what he likes and is interested in, rather than deciding for him.”

Raeesa Bulbulia, a Johannesburg-based occupational therapist, points out that in some cases, for instance, learning a musical instrument, the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to develop and make new connections), is better when your child is young, so he will learn faster. “But that’s not to say that starting when he’s older is too late,” she says.

On the other hand, activities like karate require specific cognitive and gross-motor skills that a younger child may not have developed yet. It’s all about how the activity is taught and how much your child is enjoying it.

Benefits of home activities

While both Raeesa and Melanie agree that paid-for classes and activities are fun, but not necessary, they highlight that children should have the opportunity for movement and creative play every day. “They should be playing in the garden or park, with balls, beanbags, bowls of water, things to climb on, and things to swing on,” says Melanie. “Children are fairly simple creatures; we’re the ones who make it complicated.”

Melanie also recommends that, from a safety point of view, children should be taught to swim as soon as possible.    

Raeesa adds that bath time provides a chance for texture play with sponges, scrubbing pads, and different bottles and cloths. “If you don’t have access to a garden, set up an indoor obstacle course for your child, giving him the opportunity to climb, crawl, go under and go over,” she says.