The extra-curricular balancing act

We talk to NATHAN WALLIS about balancing your aspirations with your child’s interests so that activities outside of school are enriching and enjoyable. By Kate Barber

With an abundance of options out there, it can be difficult to decide what activities to sign our kids up for. Before sorting out their after-school schedules, it’s worth thinking about the purpose of extra-curricular pursuits – what we want our kids to get out of them long-term. 

The school curriculum has its limitations. As Nathan Wallis says, there are incredible neurological advantages for children who, from a young age, learn a second language or learn a musical instrument. Yet schools don’t always capitalise on this advantage by offering these, let alone making them compulsory.

With its focus on academic achievement, the curriculum doesn’t cater to all children equally. Some, like the more right-brained children who love dance and movement, for instance, may miss out on opportunities to have their strengths nurtured, says Nathan. 

Extra-curricular activities provide the opportunity for children to have a more balanced curriculum. As Nathan says, “Every child should have the opportunity to flourish in whatever pursuits match their strengths and passions.”

We need to balance our aspirations for our child/ren alongside their interests and passions, he says. While thinking about what we want for our kids, we also need to listen to their preferences, and this means not forcing them into an activity we are passionate about if they really don’t want to do it.

There is this push and pull: allowing children to pursue their interests and also helping them to build dispositions such as patience, perseverance and commitment. If they say they want to learn the drums, for instance, it is important they commit to the process for an agreed period of time – especially if you’re going out and buying them a new drum kit, Nathan says.  

By sticking at their instrument for a year, by earning pocket money to buy a new bike, by mucking out the pony’s paddock, children gain so much more than the skills directly related to their chosen activity.

With so many possibilities to explore, there is the risk of over-scheduling our kids, leading to stress and anxiety. After a day at school, sometimes what our kids really need is downtime. If they’re under the age of eight, they certainly need free play opportunities and not too many structured activities, which will overload them. “Childhood has
to be more chill than stress,” says Nathan.

As for the optimal age for your child to start an activity, there are bursts of brain development around the age of eight, meaning that children will pick up skills quicker. However, as Nathan says, “No age is too young if they enjoy it”. 

Take Tiger Woods, who started imitating his father’s golf swing at the age of six months, and at age two putted with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. Tiger learnt the skills of the game, but more than that, he learnt to love golf, says Nathan, and it was this passion that drove his success. 

Children won’t commit, and they won’t excel ultimately, if they do not enjoy it. “What’s important is that you teach children to love what they do.”

Whether it’s piano, musical theatre, first aid or football, there are so many different learning experiences out there to challenge and inspire kids. Parents can choose activities that play to their child’s specific strengths and passions or pick ones that present unfamiliar challenges to grow new skills.