Kids should stay active, but how much is too much?

So we’re thinking of adding on a room to our house. A soundproof one. Just for saxophone practice.

My son’s fifth-grade band adventure is the latest in a long line of activities our children have explored, and it’s going to be a noisy one. But so far at least, he likes it. And I’m all for it.

But how much is too much? Every fall (winter, spring and summer) we struggle with that dilemma: Ballet or piano? Swimming or soccer? Chess Club or language lessons? And, of course, there’s always baseball, which at our house runs pretty much from April through September (with basketball during the off months).

And we only have two kids. For families with more, I honestly don’t know how they manage the logistics, or the cost.

It was easier when they were little. We’d take them to a toddler music class two mornings a week, and that was our big outing. Later we added swim lessons, then junior sports and Teeny Ballereenies. Before you could say “soccer mom” we were running all over town, trying to squeeze trivial things like our jobs (which have unpredictable hours, to say the least) in between activities.

Our son decided to drop soccer and Chess Club this year, so he has only fall ball and band at the moment — with swim lessons to follow once baseball season concludes. Our 7-year-old daughter chose ballet, so we deferred piano until January (although she may have basketball then). Argh.

Some families have a rule: one activity at a time. Patty Pyrz of Champaign allows her 8-year-old son to pick one sport per semester. For now, that’s baseball: her husband Paul played baseball for Arizona State and coaches Little League (not that there’s any connection).

It’s plenty, she says, with two games a week plus a weekend practice. Her 4-year-old daughter also has swim lessons once a week.

“I think it’s really important to not overschedule,” Pyrz said. “I have friends who have their kids in two or three sports. It’s hard as a parent not to buy into that.”

As it is, some evenings dinner gets postponed because games start at 5 or 5:30. Pyrz ends up serving “mini-dinners” to her kids before games. “I can’t stand that,” she said. “I miss our family dinners.”

Experts, in fact, recommend limiting children to two enriching activities at any one time, says Angela Wiley, a University of Illinois Extension family life specialist and associate professor of human and community development.

Overscheduling eats into family togetherness and can stress out children — a trend that’s grown worse over the past two decades, she says.

Why? Parents have more disposable income and more options than ever for organized activities, she says. And there’s always pressure to give your kids opportunities you never had, or couldn’t afford, or failed to take advantage of.

For us, that’s band. One of my biggest regrets is that I never learned to play a musical instrument, so I wanted my son to try band this year. When he initially balked, because some of his friends weren’t doing it, I had to fight the urge to force him. I explained how I didn’t want him to miss this opportunity — and strongly suggested he’d likely take piano with his sister if he didn’t try band. (Ahem.)
Fortunately, he decided on his own to do it.

Wiley says it’s OK for parents to encourage their children to try new things. Otherwise they could miss out on something they’ll love. The trick is to let it go (repeat 10 times) if they really hate it, or it just isn’t their forte.

Working parents in particular are sometimes guilted into getting their kids more and more involved — especially if they think it might help them down the road. Travel soccer or baseball teams, or intense dance programs, might give your kids more skills, but if they eat too much into family time, it’s a net loss, she says.

And intense competition can cause stress. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids should not focus too exclusively on a single sport until they reach adolescence, Wiley says.

It’s also exhausting for parents to balance job demands with shuttling kids to practices, games, performances or weekend tournaments. There’s plenty of time for all that in middle school and beyond — when they can also ride the bus to school events, Wiley says.

“It’s OK to have some downtime as a family. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.”

She suggests creating a family activity plan based on children’s interests and parent time — and energy. The idea comes from William Doherty’s book “The Intentional Family.”

Some tips: Encourage “nothing time.” Set aside dinnertime as non-negotiable family time, or create a family game night. Give your children tips for talking to a coach about missing practice for an important family event, or an instructor who pushes too much.

Pyrz has overscheduled in the past, and “no one’s really happy because it’s just too much. Everybody is tired and there’s no downtime and no time to be together, or just play in your room by yourself.”

She makes it a point to schedule family time, mostly at dinner — not watching TV or listening to music together but a time to TALK.

“As they get older, if you don’t schedule that time, it’s not going to happen,” Pyrz says. “You’ve got to take those moments when you get them, and really cherish them. When you overschedule you miss it.”

You blink, and your toddler is 10. Then he’s 18, and off to college, and family time gets harder than ever.

You can reach News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/jawurth. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/there-yet.

Photo:  Children ages 11 to 16 practice soccer drills at a World Cup Soccer Camp in Sunnyvale, Calif. File photo by Joanne Ho-Young Lee/San Jose Mercury News/MCT

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dWaller wrote on February 13, 2011 at 10:02 pm

There will never be a "too much" in sports. It is better that your children is engaged in sports like soccer, basketball, swimming and the likes for them to build a good foundation on their health. Just like for example in swimming, learning a triathlon swimming drills can help your child's improve his/her swimming technique. This is a great help for them to grow healthy.

Julie Wurth wrote on February 14, 2011 at 10:02 am
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I couldn't agree more re: staying active. It's too easy for kids to stay indoors and veg in front of TV or video games. The challenge for us has been organized sports, which sometimes can take over your life because of all the logistics involved (and can be unfair to other siblings who are dragged along). We're trying to incorporate more everyday fitness activities that we can do together, such as running, biking, etc. But we definitely have room for improvement!