For many families, the morning rush isn’t the most chaotic time of the day. Instead, the sanity-buster is that long stretch from the time school lets out until the final activity ends and everyone is home.
Surviving the afternoon activities juggle is all about planning and time management—and it’s also an opportune time to teach kids some valuable skills.
“The opportunity with activities is it’s a great time for kids to learn time management,” says Carolyn Dalgliesh, a Rhode Island-based professional organizer who specializes in helping kids who are anxious or distracted. “It’s a skill that will help them throughout their lives.”
Partners Michelle Grey and Michelle Cooper instill the same message through their business, Student Organizers of Atlanta.
“They teach kids how to tell time in school,” Cooper says, “but they don’t teach kids how to manage time.”
Without preparation, the activities crunch can get kids—and parents—on a quick path to burnout and exhaustion.
Here are 15 tips from our experts for making your child’s after-school activities a fun and rewarding part of childhood—and for teaching your child the skill of time management.
1. Choose the right activities. There is no need for everyone to run ragged getting to volleyball practice if your child no longer enjoys it. “We talk about mindful choices,” Dalgliesh says. “You want your child to get value out of any activity, whether it’s a great social outlet or a chance to run off a lot of energy.”
2. Consider timing. If you’re lucky enough to have choices in times, choose wisely. “Think about how well your child does with transitions,” Dalgliesh says. “For some kids, coming home triggers wind-down time, [so] parents may want to go to the library after school to do homework instead of stopping by the house.”
3. Honor the family meeting. There is a central principle when it comes to family time management: Everyone must get together once a week, with calendars in hand, to plan out the next week. Figure out how each kid will get to and from each activity, and make plans for meals and snacks. When doing the planning, try to carve out at least one night when the family can have dinner together. Make your weekly meeting fun by following it with a family movie or game night. Or, suggests Grey, dole out allowance and lunch money at the end of the meeting. “We made our meeting like a board meeting,” she says. “It became something special that the kids enjoyed and looked forward to.”
4. Maintain a family calendar. Each family member needs his or her own week-at-a-glance calendar, and you also need a family calendar. Yes, that’s a lot of calendars, but it will help ensure all activities are well-planned.
5. Get the activity bags ready. Get your kids in the habit of packing their activity bags on Sunday night. Designate a place for them to hang or store their bags. For activities requiring a lot of gear, use a checklist to make sure nothing gets left behind.
6. Embrace meal planning. It’s important to plan simple, consistent meals, especially if you’re a busy family with a lot of activities. For example, kids love theme dinners such as “Taco Tuesday,” and can help with preparation and assembly. Also plan snacks, making sure to have high-protein nibbles available for kids before they embark on a strenuous activity.
7. Make it portable. Keep healthy drinks and snacks in a car cooler. After all, “we’re a portable society,” Dalgliesh says. In addition to food, keep an “activities bin” for kids to rummage through while hanging out at big brother’s karate practice—but only then. “Those activities are special, and they only get pulled out when kids are waiting,” Dalgliesh explains.
8. Make car time special. If you spend a lot of time driving to and from activities, make that time count. Try an audiobook, choosing a story everyone in the family can enjoy. Dalgliesh plays a conversation game with her children. She has a set of cards with prompts such as, “What is the worst meal you ever had in a restaurant?” or “What is your favorite vacation memory?” She passes the deck to her kids has them pick one. “It’s about finding those moments to connect,” she says.
9. Have a picnic. If you have to race from your daughter’s after-school soccer practice to your son’s evening hockey game, pack a cooler and enjoy a picnic supper in the bleachers, at a park, or anywhere else you can find.
10. Divide the meal. If an activity runs right through your child’s usual dinnertime, consider giving him a large, protein-rich snack before the activity and then a light supper afterward. A starving child equals a cranky one.
11. Be flexible. Even the most carefully made plans can be rendered useless by a thunderstorm that cancels soccer practice, a sick child, or an unexpected work disaster. “There’s a whole lot of planning that needs to take place,” Cooper says. “Then, you have to go with the flow.”
12. Find small blocks of time. Thursdays might be so busy your son doesn’t have an hour to block off for math homework. Instead, find bits of available time—15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. “Take advantage of fragmented time,” Cooper says.
13. Empower your kids. Give your kids as much control over their own planning and scheduling as they can handle. “Allow kids to feel empowered, and you’ll get more buy-in,” Grey says. “As kids learn how to plan, it’s like a lightbulb goes off. They feel less stressed and more confident.”
14. Different kids need different tools. “Especially as kids get older, they need to own their organization system,” Grey says. Some kids like to do everything electronically, others like pretty paper notebooks and calendars. Some kids like to use the latest apps and color-coded pens to stay organized, and others take a minimalist approach, scribbling basic information only.
15. Electronics and computers. It’s easy to rely on electronic games and online social networking sites during the activities crunch, especially for siblings who are waiting or when you arrive at an activity early. But set limits and use electronic toys as a reward for good behavior, with exceptions to those limits when the tech tool is needed for a school project. “For example, you could allow 15 minutes for Facebook for every two hours of homework,” Grey says.
By teaching your kids the skills they need to manage their life inside and outside of school, you’ll equip them for grade school, college, and beyond. You’ll also create a family life that allows all members the opportunity to reach their potential. “The reality is that you cannot create time,” Grey says. “You have to take what you have and make use of it as best you can.”