Extra-curricular activities: Just for fun?

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Has our culture of academic achievement at all costs begun to infect even the extra-curricular and hobby pursuits of our young people? Dr Pooky Knightsmith underlines the importance of doing things ‘just for fun’

As pupils work their way through secondary school, there can be a tendency for even their leisure pursuits to be viewed as something in which they should be achieving.

The dance and music classes they once ran to, light-footed every week become about exams and grades and endless practice; the societies and team sports they participate in are seen as a gateway to UCAS and the world of work. It is no terrible thing, if the pursuit that brings a pupil pleasure can also complement their academic CV and help to open doors for them, but what about when those things become joyless as the pupil strives to achieve ever higher standards?

“I used to get lost in pieces, although it wasn’t perfect, the music felt so beautiful and it made me happy. It’s not like that now. I have to play the same piece repeatedly until I can play it perfectly. Once I’ve got my grade 8, I don’t think I’ll ever want to look at a piano again.”

It seems to be an assumption among pupils, their parents and their teachers, that as they get older they will take their hobbies more seriously and look to pass exams, gain accreditation or win awards to prove their merit, but I’d like to moot that there is a lot of value in at least some of a pupil’s hobbies simply remaining hobbies. The benefits they gain from less formal, less pressured leisure activities are manifold.

A break from academic pressure

Being able to have some down time from the pressure of school and home study can contribute greatly to a child’s wellbeing, and their attainment too. It’s simply not possible to study effectively for hours and hours on end, so a pupil who stops to have a proper break and enjoy an alternative activity for a little while will return physically, emotionally and academically refreshed. It is like pressing the restart button on your computer when it’s going a little too slowly.

An additional group of friends

The friends that pupils make through their extra-curricular activities are often different to the ones they spend most of their school day with. This exposure to a wider range of opinions and experiences can help to broaden hearts and minds.

When we hang around with the same people all the time, life can become a bit of an echo-chamber where our opinions are rarely tested.

Beyond their comfort zone

We learn a lot from trying new things and this is especially true of young people still very much finding their way in the world. When extra-curricular activities become something at which one must always compete, it limits the opportunities for pupils to have a go for fun and try something new.

Secondary school could be a great time of experimentation with hobbies and activities for all pupils – imagine the fun they’d have, how much they’d learn about themselves and the different skills and friendships they’d pick up along the way.

The space to try and fail

One of the important elements of building a young person’s resilience is that they need the opportunity to fail in a safe environment and to learn that with hard work it is possible to try again, to learn from the failure and to improve another time.

This kind of trying and failing is more likely to happen in a less formal environment where the stakes are not too high.

A way to express themselves

Finally, many extra-curricular activities can help pupils to find a language and a means to express themselves or to work through difficult big feelings they might not otherwise have the capacity to manage.

What might schools do?

While some of the benefits above might still be felt by some pupils participating more seriously, they will occur more naturally when the environment is less competitive or less formal. I worry that, especially as the arts have an ever-decreasing place in our curriculum, it would be beneficial for their wellbeing for every child in every class to have access to at least some activities which have no pressure placed upon them.

You could help your school to achieve this by:

  • Hosting a wide range of different activities on-site.
  • Working with cluster schools to make more niche activities viable.
  • Inviting local providers in to talk about the activities they offer at an after-school fair.
  • Asking pupils to share with peers information about activities they do outside school.
  • Negotiating cheap taster sessions for pupils at external activities providers.
  • Sharing information about a wide range of activities available locally on your website.

But most importantly, you can role-model it – what do you do just for fun and what do you think are the benefits to you? Why don’t you try talking to your pupils about your hobbies and get their creative juices flowing – just for fun.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith directs the children, young people and schools programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully-funded mental health training to schools. Visit www.inourhands.com/cwmt/ and email training@cwmt.org or call 01635 869754 to make an enquiry. For more information on the charity itself, visit www.cwmt.org.uk

Mental Health Advice

Dr Pooky Knightsmith will be providing regular support and advice in SecEd. Her next article is due to appear on January 5. To read the previous articles in this series, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. If there are specific issues you would like to see addressed, email pooky@cwmt.org or tweet @PookyH


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