Three-year-old Gaby Goldberg loves soccer. Every Saturday morning, her mom Jeanne Goldberg takes her for a 45-minute session of soccer practice and a game. But soccer season will be over soon. What's next? Ice skating lessons. Besides sports on the weekends, Gaby also goes to school during the week.
"Gaby goes to preschool from nine to noon Monday through Friday except for Tuesday, she goes from nine to one. She also has cooking class on Tuesdays, gymnastics on Wednesdays and dance on Fridays. Right now, she's playing soccer," said Goldberg.
She explained even though Gaby is just 3, she needs be be exposed to a lot of different activities in order to see, experience and figure out what types of things she likes doing so she can narrow them down later. The little girl's energetic nature was detected early by her mom.
"She likes to keep busy. She hasn't napped since she was 22 months old. She likes to keep up with her big sisters!" Goldberg said. Gaby's 6-year-old twin sisters Julia and Sophie have kindergarten six hours a day, five days a week, plus an hour of soccer, dance, gymnastics and religious instruction every week.
Studies show that children's free time has dropped by 12 hours a week over the past two decades. Play time is down three hours a week, and unstructured outdoor activities like walking and hiking are down 50 percent.
Is a busy schedule so bad for kids? Well, not necessarily. A University of Maryland study found that a loaded schedule doesn't cause extra stress for children. In fact, very active children tend to thrive emotionally. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns many kids are scheduled these days and need more down time .
Author Stacy Debroff points out that parents today are raising kids in a child-centered culture. They care about them being successful, and they want their kids to have friends and skills. Some experts believe kids can develop a specialty in many sports, arts or languages between the ages of 3 and 6 years old.
"If you bring a child who's 6- or 7-years-old to the soccer field for the first time or gymnastics, there are kids who have already way excelled them in terms of skills, and they can't catch up!" Debroff argued. "When we were growing up, and we were kicked outside to play, and you went from house to house. Now, kids are being driven from activity to activity. The kids next door aren't around to play because they're off at gymnastics or starting soccer leagues."
Parents also tend to compare their children with those of their friends. "There's definitely an element of keeping up with the Joneses. It puts us wanting to both bring out the best of our kids, but also wanting to compete with the neighbors next door whose kids are already doing Suzuki violin. And they are already on the elite gymnastics squad and you feel left out!" Debroff said.
Pediatrician Lisa Thornton advises parents to allow their children down time to play, draw and explore. "Kids need time to daydream and think and be creative and make up games. When everything's constantly scheduled, they don't do that, so creativity is not as spontaneous."
Thornton says that while lessons and classes help to build a child's confidence and social skills, it's important that kids participate because they enjoy it. Kids shouldn't equate extracurricular activities with parental approval. "If they understand mom and dad really want them in all of these activities, they get the message it's about being in the activity, not being themselves," she said.
While structured activities can be beneficial for kids, age should determine the amount of time a child should be engaged in a class or sport. Kids from 1 to 5 years old only have the attention span for 30 minutes of activity at a time. Kids ages 5 to 8 are better suited for participating in competitive sports or games, and they may be able to handle several lessons or activities in a week. A regular extracurricular activity is recommended for kids 8 and older so they learn discipline and teamwork.
While the pressure to excel could lead parents to schedule and overwhelm their kids, parenting experts and pediatricians point out organized sports, classes and activities have clear benefits. Children socialize, learn teamwork, sportsmanship, get exercise and have fun.