How to fill those after-school hours—and knowing when enough is enough.
There must have been a time when moms would see their kids off at the school bus stop and wave a little cheerful goodbye, overjoyed that summer had ended and the school day offered a reprieve from 24-7 parenting. Today, most harried moms and many dads turn an anxious eye toward the next 10 months filled with homework, overloaded schedules and multiple after-school activities.
Take me, for example: one day I drove 26 miles around Alameda, ushering my three kids to and from and to soccer, basketball and dance class.
We’re called “soccer moms” and such, polite terminology for crazed-grown-up-chauffeurs. We want what’s best for our kids, but constantly must ask how much is too much—for us—and for them.
Any parent can tell you that it’s an enormous balancing act to juggle academic responsibilities and the number of extracurricular activities with a sane and healthy family life. The East Bay offers a tremendous opportunity for us to expose our kids to just about anything, whether it’s sports such as tennis, soccer, football, sailing or martial arts, as well as music and musical instruments. How do we fit it all in? More times than not, kids are overscheduled and programmed to an extreme extent. And, in the midst of all that, when do we let our kids not “just be kids,” but just be?
Striking a balance
“It’s a common attitude to get kids involved in as many activities as possible,” says Marion Atherton, director of the Crowden Center for Music in the Community in Berkeley. “But I don’t think it’s healthy, especially in music education. It doesn’t serve the kids to spread them around.”
She and other experts note that signing up for lessons or teams of any kind can mean a commitment of more than one hour per week because of practices, recitals and games.
Another consideration when scheduling children has to do with their ability to process events. “Think about it from an adult perspective,” says Atherton. “You just can’t dash home and jump into the next thing. You have to work at changing gears. It’s the same for kids; they need to change gears.” Atherton believes that back-to-back activities, added on to a full day of school, reduce the ability to concentrate and focus on one activity at a time.
Some fault California’s Prop. 13—the 1978 initiative that put a cap on property taxes funding public school education—with creating the mind-set of parents today. Because music, art and physical education are sometimes not offered in schools or are de-prioritized, parents seek after-school programs to give kids a more well-rounded education.
Eddie Pasternak, an East Bay tennis and jazz guitar instructor for more than 20 years, says children and their parents can pay a price for all this activity. “I can never schedule [some students] because they have karate, music, tutors, math and language lessons,” says Pasternak. “In the end, they are very well rounded. But they are not excelling at anything.”
On the other hand, some parents are so focused on ensuring that their children excel at a sport in order to garner future scholarships and college admissions that they ignore the needs of the child and family. And in some cases, children who have been specializing in a sport or instrument for several years fear quitting will mean failure.
Regan McMahon, author of Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports (Gotham Books, 2007), says that parents can relax about prepping Suzie or Johnny for the major leagues before high school.
“The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that children not specialize in one sport until puberty, when growth plates have fully formed,” she says. In fact, she notes that colleges and professional sports scouts and teams are now looking for players who have played more than one sport, and have taken time off to rest. “Most pediatricians and many coaches advise one sport per season and [to] play multiple sports, so your child is not at risk of overuse injuries,” McMahon says.
Working parents often opt for care offered at public and private schools following the school day or for other nearby programs in the community. These programs may provide before-school as well as after-school care, with times running from 7 a.m. until school starts, then from after school until anytime between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Most of the off-site programs have built-in carpooling to and from school.
Girls Inc. of Alameda County offers academic enrichment programs at school sites in San Leandro, Oakland and Hayward after school.
The program provides both homework monitoring for the older girls and assistance with grade-level reading and academics, as well as sports and fitness activities. Pat Loomes, executive director, says that the mixing of physical with mental stimulation is an excellent approach to after-school care.
“Children are in school for as many as seven or eight hours, but at the end of the day, they need a different format,” Loomes notes. She also sees a choice in a variety of activities as a chance to build self-esteem and confidence. “If girls are failing in school, they can come to Girls Inc. and succeed,” she says. “Girls need to feel that they can do something. In a setting outside of school, they do art and suddenly realize that they are good at it.”
In most cases, schools contract with Girls Inc. to provide after-school services; but the group has one site called Concordia Park on 62nd Ave. in Oakland where parents from around the community can opt to send girls after school.
The Jewish Community Center of the East Bay offers an after-school program for kids in kindergarten through sixth grades. Karen Cagan, JCC’s children’s services director, says that the program incorporates approximately 150 students from 10 feeder schools in Berkeley and three in Albany. For many kids in the program, JCC offers a safe place to land after school, where they can socialize and learn new things. “After school is a big time of transition. It’s important that these kids have a lot of choices that they just don’t have in school,” she says.
The JCC offers a wide range of non-academic, fun, one-hour classes, taught by teachers on staff. These are typically five-week instruction in activities like gardening, cooking, art and woodworking. The classes are included in the overall cost of the program. The JCC also hires instructors from community organizations to teach capoeira (Brazilian martial arts), drama and drumming. The winning strategy for JCC kids is that everything is optional.
Cagan says kids can sign up for some of these activities or just spend time in the yard where there is a sport area, climbing structure and art-project space as well as tables with board games like chess and Jenga. There is also a supervised study hall where children can do their homework.
While it is not mandatory to be Jewish, the JCC celebrates Shabbat every Friday, as well as bigger celebrations of Jewish holidays with cooking and other projects. “JCC’s overall philosophy is to get the kids to try to understand what it means to be part of this community and the bigger community, as well, offering kids a culture that they don’t learn much about in the public school,” Cagan says.
Eden O’Brien-Brenner, director of Youth and Family Services of the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, says the Y’s mission is to help kids develop a love of movement and healthy lifestyles. The Albany YMCA provides licensed before- and after-school care from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Berkeley’s South branch YMCA offers an academic-focused after-school program that’s open to low-income kids.
At the downtown Berkeley YMCA, children can take classes classes in fitness, swimming, multiple sports, dance, yoga and more. Parents do not have to be Y-members for their children to take classes; however a $35 annual community program fee, plus the cost of the class, is required. Some financial aid is available.
For older kids and those whose parents have the opportunity to get them to a practice and lessons on time, the list of after-school activities is dizzying. (See After-school Fare for suggestions.)
Survival tips for parents
As far as keeping sane during school months and surviving drop-offs, pack in the stuff you can accomplish on the road or on the go. I’ve been known to plug my laptop into the wall at the basketball gym or in my car. Other parents bring knitting, help siblings with homework or do grocery shopping while kids are already supervised on the soccer field or in the dance studio. Throw a chicken in the Crock-Pot early that morning and dinner will be ready when you arrive home hungry, tired and pressed for time.
Another way to retain your sanity and that of your kids is to step back and relieve the pressure of pushing kids too hard in their extracurricular pursuits. “It’s OK if you are not trying to develop the next rock star or professional player,” says Pasternak. “You want your kids to just enjoy the process, take lessons so they can play around with the guitar. Take tennis, so they can go out some afternoon on the tennis courts and get some exercise and know how to play. Just give them the ability; it doesn’t need to be the best in the world.”
Author McMahon reminds parents that it’s up to them to direct their children’s schedules, not the other way around. “Parents need to have balance as a key priority in the family life,” she says. “So many good things happen as a result of just letting kids be. Creativity comes from down time. So does overall body health and the ability to reduce stress.”
That said, I’m off to pick up a kid from her dance class. She may not be the next prima ballerina, but she often feels like she is.
Mary Lee Shalvoy is a so-called soccer mom of three daughters.
What’s the plan?
Eden O’Brien-Brenner, director of Youth and Family Services for the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, offers some sage advice for parents looking for activities to serve their school-age children. It’s imperative, she says, to first assess what you want and what they need. Here are some key questions to help you get started:
• What level of structure does your child need? Does he or she need organized activity or less-restricted freedom?
• Determine the quality of instruction: How are the instructors qualified? Are they passionate about what they do? Are they doing what they want to do (intrinsically motivated) or doing it just for the money?
• What are your time requirements? Are you a full-time working parent, a stay-at-home parent or are your kids home-schooled?
Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League: This league emphasizes basic skills, active participation, teamwork and the fun of the game. Information for the 2008 spring season is mailed in November. Visit www.abgsl.org or call (510) 869-4277.
Crowden Center for Music in the Community (CCMC): Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Crowden School is a private middle school (grades 4 through 8) that also offers group and private instruction in wind and string instruments primarily, including violin, cello, flute, clarinet, harp, guitar and piano. The after-school, weekend and summer classes cater to all levels, from beginners to budding Beethovens, ages 3 and up. Visit www.crowden.org or call (510) 559-6910.
Danspace: The studio uses the Corvino approach to dance that combines classical technique with artistry. Located on Hudson Street in Oakland, the studio has an extensive children’s program. Visit www.danspace.com or call (510) 420-0920.
Destiny Arts Center: Located in a newly refurbished Temescal building shared with the North Oakland Charter School (NOCS), Destiny offers classes in dance and martial arts while teaching about art as a means of preventing violence. Visit www.destinyarts.org or call (510) 597-1619.
Eddie Pasternak: Eddie Pasternak has taught guitar and tennis in the East Bay for more than two decades. For information about tennis lessons, visit epasternak.com; for music, visit eddiepasternak.com.
Head Over Heels Gymnastics: Located in Emeryville, this gymnastic stalwart is celebrating its 30th year in operation. As the largest recreational gymnastic center in the area, Head Over Heels serves 900 families, with classes for 18-month-olds to adults. Students can take classes in tumbling and gymnastics, capoeira and circus arts. The gym also offers competition-level gymnastics instruction. Head Over Heels is a nonprofit that pro-vides scholarships and work trade for students based on need. Visit www.hohgymnastics.com or call (510) 655-1265.
Jazzschool: Founded 10 years ago, the Jazzschool offers classes for kids of all ages in wind instruments, percussion, voice and more taught by acclaimed jazz musicians. Visit www.jazzschool.com or call (510) 845-5373.
Julia Morgan Center for the Arts: Located on College Avenue near the Elmwood District, the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts houses the Stage Door Conservatory that provides drama, voice and dance classes as well as design of stage sets to children in grades 3 through 12. The Center also offers dance classes through Luna Kids and the Berkeley Ballet Theater. Visit juliamorgan.org. To contact Stage Door, call (510) 521-6250.
Luna Kids Dance: This dance and movement program is located in churches and community centers throughout the East Bay. The program emphasizes creative dance as a means of self-awareness and a way to develop compassion and understanding. Luna Kids has an open house on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1-3 p.m. at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Visit www.lunakidsdance.com or call (510) 644-3629.
U.C. Berkeley Village: The U.C. Berkeley Village recreation center is at the heart of campus housing for U.C. Berkeley families, but offers classes to the whole community. After-school and weekend classes include basketball, soccer, softball, baseball and gymnastics, depending on the season. For more information and a schedule of classes, call (510) 526-8505.
Girls Inc. of Alameda County: Concordia Park, 3000 62nd Avenue, Oakland, (510) 430-1850; general information: (800) 374-4475; www.girlsinc.org.
Jewish Community Center, East Bay: 1414 Walnut Street, Berkeley, (510) 848-0237; www.jcceastbay.org.
YMCA: Downtown Berkeley: (510) 848-9622; Albany: (510) 524-9737; www.baymca.org.