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Kids and Structured Activities — How Much is TOO Much?

Mary taking an unauthorized break during gymnastics. Photo by Samantha Ball.Pin
Mary taking an unauthorized break during gymnastics. Photo by Samantha Ball.

My daughter Mary participates in more activities than I do. Over her lifespan, she’s completed multiple sessions of Monkey Rock, swimming and gymnastics. She has also benefited from semi-regular attendance of library programs and Brinkeetos. While I was on maternity leave, we both looked forward to weekly playgroup. And I am probably even forgetting a few things…

Somehow, I’ve become the mom that over-schedules her kid and lives to regret it. Mary seems to be having a blast, but Mommy is wondering where the weekend went.*  Sundays (which should really be legally enforced as a day of rest for everyone) are all Mary now. In the morning, I take her to gymnastics, where she runs and tumbles with her friend Liam. At just two-years-old, Mary is one of the youngest in the class and doesn’t always follow instructions. Last week, her teacher called her a “little troublemaker” when she ran off and interrupted some of the older kids during their routines. He was joking.  I am pretty sure anyway…

We don’t often last the full hour of gymnastics—though Liam will usually listen and hold out for the reward of a sticker from the teacher, Mary isn’t so easily bought. She wants to run, explore and join the older kids. Inevitably, all the running off, mixed with sporadic attempts at the routines the teacher has laid out for her cause her to tire out. A few times she’s simply stretched out on the ground or a mat and said she was “going to sleep”. So, usually I pack her up and she happily heads home for lunch about 20 minutes before the class ends.

We go home for lunch, she has a nap and then it’s time to gear up for swimming lessons. Swimming lessons seem to be a favourite. She wants to put her bathing suit on at least an hour in advance. But swimming lessons follow a similar rhythm—she wants to do her “own thing” rather than demonstrate a variety of skills in the order the teacher asks her for them. Last week, she insisted on doing things “all by herself” and surprised me by tucking her floaties under her arms and swimming over to the instructor. Unfortunately, his back was turned and he missed her attempt to show off for him.

Later though, he did see her screaming at the top of her lungs while she tried to scale the side of the pool in an attempt to get out and to the slide. So, he promptly brought the whole class to the next station —where the slide was. I didn’t know if I should be mortified or grateful. When we got to that location, I did let Mary use the slide, but only after she practiced her “kicks” —what she’d refused to do while trying to escape the big pool.

So, what are kid’s activities supposed to be like? What is the purpose for parent and child? Are these activities and the strict rules and expectations too much for a 2-year-old?

Does my daughter rebel because of an early distaste for authority, or just because she can?

I view her activities as a fun outing for mother and daughter and an attempt to teach Mary about structure and introduce her to a variety of skills. But maybe that’s a rosy-coloured view of the real situation—that I sign my daughter up for lots of activities because she does enjoy herself and I am not sure how to spend time with a two-year-old (can I conjure up something equally as interesting for her at home?). Maybe I need to dial back on structured activities and just look for my inner kid.

*P.S. I know there are lots of sports parents who spend all weekend at the arena and/or on the basketball court, soccer field, etc., perhaps they have some tips on keeping a balance?

I Tell Stories
I Tell Storieshttp://samanthaball.ca/
Samantha lives in Stittsville with her husband, Jon, and their daughter, Mary. Samantha works full-time for the federal government and also enjoys writing part-time, including as a writer for Ottawa Parenting Times Magazine. Feel free to check out her website – samanthaball.ca and follow her on Twitter @I_Tell_Stories

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  1. Thanks for this article, I also have a 2 year old who loves to run around in gymnastics and does not want to follow the series of activities the instructor requires. I wish there were more options for us to expose our toddlers to these activities without the structure. My daughter would just enjoy and hour of free play but drop in sessions are rare as these companies want us to feel like our kids are being taught. What is answer?

  2. Trying to find that balance of exposing them to enough while not overscheduling them is a challenge for sure.

    I figure one can’t overestimate how much a kid is learning and skills they’re gaining without structured instruction. They’re in exploring mode and learn by doing.

    We do lessons sometimes, but often it’s the case like you said, where we’re trying to make sure he’s paying attention. To get out and try things, we instead go to the Preschool swims, gymnastics drop-ins, Early Learning Resource Centre drop-ins, playdates and just time to “dig around in dirt” or climb at the playground (at least once upon a time when it was nice out). It works better when they can decide what to get into.

    I figure in a few years’ time, we’ll have a good idea of where his real interests are, and then it’ll feel more worthwhile to pay an instructor.

  3. HI Tara, for free range gymnastics without the structure, Starr Gymnastics has drop in sessions where they can run amok and play with any/all equipment for an hour. The staff is there to supervise only – making sure everyone is safe and that the parents aren’t using the equipment. 😉 You’d be surprised how often THAT happens…;)

  4. I attended a Public Health session at playgroup for determining where your child should be developmentally in relation to their age, and I was surprised to learn that by the age of three they should be listening 50% of the time. So needless to say, if your child is enjoying herself I wouldn’t worry about it how much she listens to the instructor. 🙂

  5. I believe it’s good to have a balance of structured and unstructured play. When my kids were little, they participated in a couple of structured activities per week and then the rest of the play was unstructured. Sometimes we went to playgrounds, library play groups of just invited other kids over to play.

  6. Thanks for raising these important issues. I think back to when I was a child and I remember some of the most valuable, rewarding learning came out of spontaneous activities that I did because they were interesting to me. My parents were great in that respect, not enrolling me in too many structured activities.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone! For those that like “drop-ins” -we’ve enjoyed Brinkeetos in Kanata as an alternative at times to a regular gymnastics program and a fun location for a “playdate”.

    I am looking forward to more chances to encourage Mary’s exploration and outdoor free play now that it looks like winter may finally be over! 🙂


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