Typically around this time of year, parents ask me questions around kids and extra curriculars, like soccer and swimming lessons. As parents we get excited about all these activities our little ones can participate in!! Especially this year, in the places where things have begun opening back up, some parents have gone slightly overboard to compensate for the last year of nothingness. But many will find themselves paying all this money and their child just wants to sit on the sidelines and watch. Or halfway through, they say they’re done and are happy to just sit and watch everyone else participate. And this isn’t a pandemic problem, but this “observer” phenomenon is going to be exacerbated this year due to COVID as a lot of kids will go from almost total isolation to in the middle of recreational activities with a bunch of other small humans.
Observation is a valid form of participation.
Children learn by watching other people do, especially young kids. They’re used to having extended periods of observation before they even make their first attempt. Think about more mundane activities like eating, learning to walk, learning to go down a slide, or learning to dance – children learn these things by watching the adults and older children around them do them before they even try it.
For a 3 year old participating in intramural soccer for the first time, or a 2 year old in swimming lessons for the first time, it can be very overwhelming. This is often why we see younger siblings jump into these activities more readily, because they’ve generally been exposed to their older sibling participating in the activities with no pressure on them to participate for at least a year before it’s their turn.
Kids sometimes participate part of a practice then decide to sit out and watch the remainder.
I’ve seen this with countless swimming lessons, soccer practices and dance classes. Part of my job as an early interventionist was to take children on my caseload to community activities and facilitate their inclusion. I got to go to gymnastics, swimming, parkour, martial arts, soccer, baseball and dance class with the kiddos that I worked with, to make sure that they could still do these things that are a part of childhood and that there was an adult there who could help if they needed it.
I saw both this and the observer phenomenon happen constantly. I was always biting my tongue when a child would remove themselves and their parents would start forcing them back into the activity, because usually it ended with the child having a meltdown because they were done. Kids know when they’re done, meaning out of energy. The children very calmly decided to sit on the sidelines and observe for the rest of the class. In other words, they were self-regulating! When they were forced back into the activity they’d hit a wall and it would end in a total disaster.
Generally classes for young kids are an hour long max, most being 30 – 45 minutes. To us, adults, that feels like a very short period of time, but for a 2 – 6 year old that’s a long time to keep it together for, especially in the evening. Because to us it feels short and we all know extracurriculars are expensive, we want them to actively participate for the entire hour-long class so that we get our money’s worth! But for our kids it’s exhausting doing something new, and often if you force them back into it when they’ve already self-identified that they’ve had enough, what we actually start to do is create a negative association with the activity. They perceive it as stressful and exhausting.
If we allow them to come sit on the side, have a drink of water, and watch their peers, we maintain that positive association and they keep learning the skills we’ve paid for them to learn. They’re calmly observing them, which means they’re more likely to try that skill next time, and they’re more likely to do that skill proficiently.
Our kids have to learn to re-budget their energy.
They don’t have the last year of social experiences to be able to gauge how much energy these activities will take, and therefore are more likely to hit a wall much faster than they would have previously. They don’t have the last year of observing their peers do things they’d like to do to pull experiences from to inform their actions. All of these things are unconscious but very active processes our brains take part in without any awareness of it on our part, and they have a huge impact on our children’s ability to participate in activities with their peers.
My advice to you:
As you register your kids for all sorts of cool, novel things this summer is: register them for half as many activities you think you’re capable of doing, and only register them for things you’re okay with them spending a lot of time observing, either before they participate or after. Going from one extreme of almost total isolation to the other is not healthy, safe, or prudent. This will cause you a lot of frustration and anxiety over wasted funds and time.
Pick one or two things you can’t wait to get back to, and let the rest go this year. Something I do recommend doing if you’ve got more activities than you can reasonably handle is ask your friends for the various schedules, or just drop by activities that you can observe. You don’t have to attend every soccer game, but ask a friend whose son is already enrolled, when the practices are and take your child. This gives your child the opportunity to observe and reference the activity when you ask them (next Spring) if they want to participate!
I found that even for things like dance classes or gymnastics classes, which aren’t as easy to casually observe, if I called the studio or gym and explained that I wanted to have my child observe some classes before committing to enrollment, they happily allowed me to do so. So that’s an option too if the idea of cutting your activities in half terrifies you, creating observation opportunities for your child for those you’re cutting this year.
If you want to talk this out with other like-minded parents, come join us in the Parenting Posse. We have almost nine thousand parents who are all dealing with the same issues, we’ve got ParentAbility veterans and amazing, experienced moderators to help you figure out what is a reasonable load for your family and how to make this transition back into normal life as smooth as possible for you.