Extra-curricular activities add lots of fun and richness to a child's life. The number of possible pastimes for kids continues to grow with each and every school year, even in our smallish community in rural Minnesota. Activities are a wonderful way for kids to learn and grow, to experience new things, and to find out what they enjoy. But if we're not careful, our calendars can fill up really quickly, and all those activities can make it difficult to carve out time for family fun, relaxation, meals together, and just living life together at home.
We didn't realize this at first. When our oldest two children were in their early elementary years, they excitedly showed us every flyer that came home in their backpacks, and were eager to try a little bit of everything. Our two younger kids were very portable in their baby, toddler and preschool years. They had plenty of downtime with me at home during the day, and they'd happily hop in the minivan and tag along to the after-school activities of their older siblings. Even with a few things on the calendar, we still had plenty of family time and ate most meals together at home.
When the time came that all four of our kids were in school though, things changed a lot. Four kids in school meant activities x 4, concerts x 4, teacher conferences x 4, in addition to the more demanding schedules of bigger-kids sports, confirmation classes, and the associated volunteer opportunities. Time at home was becoming very limited. It was a rare evening that all six of us could gather around the table for supper, and that quickly began to wear on my mama heart. I'd always been happy that my kids were eager to try new things, but I never wanted to be a family whose life completely revolved around sports (or any extra-curricular). I've always had those old-fashioned ideals of kids playing outside, riding bikes, playing games and eating meals together as a family. I was determined to hold onto those priorities as much as I could, while also embracing the changes that come with a growing family.
I knew we needed a more intentional way of filling our calendar. We couldn't just keep saying yes to every opportunity that looked like fun. We needed some guidelines. After lots of thought, I settled upon a method that was really helpful to me. I began by jotting down a list of every single commitment that each of us had throughout the year. The list included everything from sports to Sunday school to dance to my volunteering at school and my husband's volunteering as a coach and confirmation leader. When I finished, the list filled both sides of a sheet of paper. We were doing a LOT, even though we'd purposely chosen activities with lower commitments. (For instance, we delayed starting our kids in traveling competitive sports, opting for the lighter schedules of the recreational teams.) Each of our kids only had one or two commitments each season (usually a sport or dance along with music of some kind), which seemed very reasonable. All of the volunteer opportunities that my husband and I took on were good things, and we wanted to be helpful and involved. Our many church activities and commitments were a high priority. But when we added all of those things up, it began to take a toll on our family time, which we quickly realized was becoming more and more precious as our kids grew up before our eyes.
I needed a way to judge all these activities against our family's priorities...some better way of choosing how we were using our time. After lots more thought, I came up with four standards for our family...things that we could measure the opportunities against. Everyone's values are different, and these were the four standards I came up with, according to our particular family's priorities:
Fits comfortably into our calendar
Fits our family's values and priorities
Something we're passionate about
What we get out of it is worth the time we put into it
I made myself a little graph where I listed all our commitments down the side, and put the standards across the top. I then used it like a checklist...I went through and checked off which of the standards each activity met. I decided that anything that went on the calendar needed to meet at least two of our standards (preferably more). (I created a free printable "Family Commitment Sorter-Outer" that you're welcome to download HERE if you'd like to try this exercise for yourself using your family's activities and values.)
For instance, if an activity is a huge time commitment or involves a very difficult schedule, and isn't something the child is super passionate about, it might not make the cut. It doesn't meet the "passionate" standard, it doesn't meet the "calendar" standard, and it doesn't meet the "priorities" standard (because one of our values is that sports and activities should be a part of life, not our whole life). We would need to re-think that activity. For a different child, a particular sport might be a child's passion, making it worth the time invested, so those two standards might outweigh the other two, and we'd find a way to make it work.
This method was also helpful in the case of those little, "just because" activities. If it's not a passion, and not necessarily worth the time invested, it's an easier one to trim from the list. Cutting back on some of those lower priority activities would allow us a little more wiggle room in our schedule, which is the only way to salvage a bit of time for family game night or supper together. These simple pleasures become more and more important as the years go by faster and kids turn into teenagers.
And with the additional kids' activities, naturally comes the volunteer opportunities. For every music concert, volunteers are needed to hand out programs. For every sport, we can go to booster meetings or help coach. For every church event, volunteers make it happen. There's always something, and it's all worthwhile and good. But with our calendar bursting at the seams with the kids' commitments, we need to choose really wisely which volunteer projects make the best use of our time and talents so that we can feel good about what we're doing. We both feel called to help at church, so that's a high priority, but we choose what we enjoy the most so we can be joyful givers. This means that we help with the children's and youth ministries, but we don't feel obligated to take a turn as ushers and greeters. Matt loves to coach youth sports and it's a way for him to spend time with our own kids while also making a difference in the lives of others, so that's a priority. I hate committees and meetings so I choose to help our school PTO and sports boosters by designing graphics and flyers, which can be done on my own time and uses my natural talents. Measuring our volunteer efforts according to our family's standards makes it easier to say yes when we want to, and easier to feel ok about saying no when something isn't a good fit. We don't have to (and we shouldn't) say yes to everything. And we also shouldn't worry about what others think about our level of volunteering, because our family's time and priorities are more important (although that's a whole other topic.)
Every family's list of activities will be different, and every family's values standards are different. It's important to me that our kids are exposed to the arts, and it's important to Matt that they have athletic opportunities, so in our family, we blend and balance those priorities. Some families prioritize one over the other. We all get to choose how we spend our time, and that's one of the beautiful things about life. For some of you, basing your decisions on your priorities may be a completely obvious concept that you do naturally. But for me, it was very helpful to look at the choices we were making in this intentional way. I invite you to download the free printable "Family Activity Sorter-Outer" HERE . I hope this concept is helpful to you as you determine how to use those precious 24 hours of your day.
How do you balance the schedule of your busy family?