With budget cuts directly affecting the quality of education our young children receive, many parents are now wondering if they should supplement their child’s education with after-school activities. The question becomes: What activities should we focus on?
Contrary to what most people believe, bulking up on math and reading skills is not what children need most. Instead of doubling up on what children already receive at school, it’s better to focus on what schools do not offer, or at least what they don’t offer enough of. Often these are activities that foster your child’s creativity, culture and independence.
At school, children spend the majority of the day “doing as they are told.” Although this may be an effective way to learn, it does not provide the opportunity for your child to use his brain in a creative way. Creative thinking is crucial in today’s job market. Employers are looking for individuals who are able to think outside the box, who can come up with solutions and resolve problems as they arise.
The only way your children will be creative adults is to allow them time and opportunity to explore their creativity as children.
How do we make this happen? Easy. First, make sure your child has plenty of time throughout the week to play (that’s right—play). Make sure your child’s toys include building toys, like Legos, clay, Play-doh, plasticine, art supplies of all kinds, journals, papers of different colors and sizes, dress-up costumes and stories. As they grow older, encourage story writing, movie making, photography and activities they can do alone or with friends. If they like video games, find games that have maps they can create or stories they can invent. The point is to help them foster their ability to lead, not follow directions.
Chores are very important for children. Knowing they are being counted on to help run the household makes them feel like an essential part of the family. At home, my sons have a choice of either setting the table and clearing it, or cooking dinner. If they cook dinner on their own, I set the table. If they help me cook dinner, then I help them set the table. We started this before they were in kindergarten. Now, at ages 8 and 11, they are fully capable to cook delicious meals, from steak and rice with salad, to lentil stew. They have invented recipes over the years and taken great pride in “cooking something up” for their friends.
Chores should not be viewed as an opportunity for parents to tell children what to do. Instead, allow them to take ownership of their responsibility. This will foster the habit of responsibility and of working independently, a skill that can be acquired at school, but must be reinforced at home. It is your job as a parent to help your child feel proud of being responsible and independent.
Having friends over not only allows children to engage in creative, undirected play, but it also allows them to build social skills at any age. Often, parents think their children only need to acquire social skills during their preschool years. While it’s true those years are key in their development of social interaction, it’s also important for children of every age to work on meaningful relationships. Learning to understand others and develop skills such as empathy and negotiation will serve them into their adult life.
Recess at school does not provide the same opportunity as children often play in larger groups or choose vigorous activities such as sports. One thing to keep in mind, however, is not to be over eager about setting up activities for your children and their friends at home. While going to the movies or the pool is fun, these pre-planned activities don’t allow children to be creative or get to know each other in the same way. Playing at home or in the backyard gives them control of how they spend their time.
Although schools do as much as possible to introduce children to cultural events, budgets often don’t allow a lot of exposure to arts and culture. Going to a cultural event as a family is a wonderful way to expand your child’s knowledge. Take your children to live theater, the symphony, other music concerts, museums and art galleries in your city or in cities nearby. There are often amazing street performers and artists to see, especially during the summer months. Be a tourist in your own town.
Make a point of doing the same when traveling. This will teach your children to notice and become acquainted with valuable aspects of our culture, and introduce them to a whole different side of life they may not otherwise appreciate.
Learn about the world
Study the world with your children, one continent at a time, then country by country. All you need is a map and an atlas or the Internet. This opens up a world of knowledge and possibilities to your children (no pun intended)! When you travel, learn about a place before you to go it. Allow each family member to choose a site they would like to visit or an activity to participate in. Learning about other cultures teaches children about acceptance and understanding. It enables them to appreciate differences and to be empathetic.
Another great habit to adopt at home is to watch the news as a family and discuss world events together. Alternatively, watch the news yourself and share some of the information with your family. Have conversations, when appropriate, about world issues and involve your children in coming up with ideas on how to contribute as responsible citizens.
Read together as a family
Read with your children, read to your children, and enjoy every moment of your children reading to you. When they are little and can’t yet read, you can ask them to tell you a story (they can invent it, with or without a book). You can also plan weekly trips to the library and choose books to take home and read. It’s been proven that reading boosts your child’s grades at school.
It also increases your child’s vocabulary, provides them with valuable knowledge, fosters their imagination and creativity, and allows them to learn about any subject under the sun. An avid reader is always well regarded by teachers and by society in general. This helps to boost your child’s self-confidence tremendously. Just recently, my son finished a 400-page book, which he proudly passed on to me saying, “You should read it Mom, I know you would love it.” Good reading habits are instilled at home, not at school.
There are some co-curricular activities that I do recommend to supplement school. The first is music lessons for your child. Learning to play a musical instrument is beneficial in other academic areas, including math.
Your child can choose an instrument that is not learned at school, like guitar or piano, or any instrument that really calls to her. If music is not a favorite in your family, you could try art classes, acting classes or any other artistic activity, to supplement an area that is often neglected at school.
The second is a regular physical activity. This can be a team sport, or an activity like tennis, golf, dance or circus classes. Anything that gets their hearts racing with excitement and, if possible, fresh air. Family hikes or visits to the park will do just fine as well. It does not have to be expensive in order to work.
I encourage you to embrace life with your children and provide them with the rich opportunities that often cannot be provided in a school environment. This will give your children the true skills they need, to be successful in and outside the classroom.
For more on this subject, read Metroparent Magazine's article "The value of an art education." Also, our events calendar offers listings of cultural and educational events that can help supplement education.
Natacha V. Beim is a writer, speaker, teacher and the founder of Core Education & Fine Arts Junior Kindergarten schools (www.cefa.ca). Read her blog at www.natachabeim.com.
This story originally ran in the February 2011 issue of Metroparent Magazine.