Are extracurriculars from a young age useful for children?
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Are extracurriculars from a young age useful for children?

by Freya Lucas

November 20, 2023

While formalised extra curricular activities for children from a young age are popular in many cultures and communities, recent research from China, where such classes and programs are very popular, has shown that extracurricular activities don’t always improve a child’s skills or behaviour, and may in fact be detrimental. 


The ‘overscheduling’ phenomenon, which sees children involved in academic and sporting lessons, scheduled activities and programed play, is a relatively recent development in terms of how children are raised. In some cultures, it is the result of a “pressure to perform” which leaves parents concerned that their child may miss out on a social or academic advantage if they are not engaged in activities driven by ‘experts’.


Published in the Journal of School Psychology, the research, led by Dr Lixin Ren from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China, found that children’s ability to manage and regulate their behaviour and their attitude to learning can affect the outcome of extracurricular activities, and that the outcome depends on the range of activities, as well as the intensity – how often and for how long they take part.


“I observed that many parents invest a significant amount of their family’s financial resources in extracurricular activities for preschool children. Therefore, I wanted to use scientific research to explore the role of these activities in child development and whether they are truly needed for young children,” Dr Ren explained.


A child’s mathematical ability is often a major concern for Chinese parents. Dr Ren’s study looked at how extracurricular activities affected maths skills in 317 preschool children in Shanghai, China, between the ages of three and six years.


The team found that the impact of extracurricular activities on children was dependent on several factors, particularly their behavioural regulation abilities and approaches to learning.


“Essential behavioural regulation skills include focusing and maintaining attention on tasks, following instructions, tuning out irrelevant information, and inhibiting inappropriate actions. Approaches to learning describe a child’s initiative, persistence, curiosity, and motivation in learning situations,” Dr Ren explained.


“We found that for children with poor behavioural regulation or less positive approaches to learning, actively participating in a wide range of activities can improve their early mathematical skills.”


“This may be because children with poorer self-regulation skills require structured, organised, and managed learning environments. However, for children with good behavioural regulation or positive approaches to learning, the effects of extracurricular activities are not significant.” 


“In terms of the intensity of extracurricular activities, for children with poor self-regulation skills, participating in extracurricular activities for long hours each day is detrimental to their development of mathematical ability.” 


“Even for children with good self-regulation skills, positive effects gradually turn into negative influences after reaching a certain peak level of participation. In this study, the threshold was 9.08 hours a week. However, this threshold cannot be used as a definitive cut-off, as more studies are needed to understand if this is representative of the whole population.“


The study also found that extracurricular activities have a limited positive impact on children’s Chinese word reading and vocabulary comprehension. 


Rather than scheduling children into numerous activities, Dr Ren recommends that parents follow the interests of their children when selecting extracurricular activities, and that they engage in activities as a family, rather than relying on ‘expert’ tutors or providers. 


When choosing instructors for children, Dr Ren recommends families look at how developmentally appropriate their teaching methods are, and that the activities, lessons and tuition provided is interactive and responsive environments and allows for flexibility in adjusting the curriculum.


“Most children in China are overscheduled nowadays. Perhaps children should be allowed more free time instead of having to attend more structured activities,” Dr Ren said. 


To view Behavioral regulation and approaches to learning: Moderators of the association between extracurricular involvement and academic readiness, please see here

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