Though school may be among the most important things going in the lives of young humans, everybody knows that kids benefit from getting involved with activities outside school. But how good are we at ensuring kids get the chance to find out what they enjoy doing? And in our enthusiasm for their personal development, is there the danger that kids end up taking on too much? Should they be getting more of a chance to just do… nothing?

One factor that influences how much time our kids have outside school is something many of us may remember with a shudder: homework.

There’s been a lot of debate going on recently as to how much homework is good for kids, or whether in fact the whole concept of getting children to carry on with learning at home isn’t outdated.

The natural assumption that homework is going to further a child’s development academically has come under scrutiny in recent years too. Many studies have pointed to a near-zero positive effect of homework on achievement at primary level.

In 2007, Alfie Kohn wrote The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. In it, the author claims to have examined the evidence and come to the conclusion that the party lines trotted out to defend homework at a young age have nothing to back them: that homework improves achievement, allows students to practice, and teaches study skills. Not to mention, of course, that it’s been seen forever as a great way to sow the seed of a good old-fashioned work ethic. Kohn argues that the titular homework myth comes from a misguided focus on competitiveness in our schooling systems.

Of course, those who think homework makes up a crucial part of the learning experience think they’ve got a very strong case too. They say that homework teaches children how to work independently, and cultivate discipline – skills that we know can help toward success in later life. And there’s one outcome of a good after-school learning regimen that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the research, and it’s one that pro-homework folk think is crucial: homework gets kids and parents learning and sharing together.

But would that time in the evenings be best spent learning and sharing in some other context? In fact, does every waking moment of our kids’ lives need to be planned and assigned to some task – academic or otherwise – that we feel is necessary for the formation of well-rounded people? Are we teaching our kids to feel guilty unless they’re being productive?

The American Academy of Pediatrics last month released a report seemingly based on such questions. Its recommendation: doing nothing. Well, not quite nothing – are kids ever actually doing nothing? – the report cautions that schools and parents are becoming far too focused on achievement, and too driven by the fear that our children are being left behind by this well-meaning competitiveness. They say we should be allowing children lots more time for unstructured play and just exploring their own imaginations.

That’s not, of course, to suggest that after school should simply be a time of wanton indolence. It’s all about balance. It’s obvious that all children need opportunities to socialise, in the context of finding out what they really enjoy doing – whether that be sport, cooking, dancing, martial arts, or any of the uncountable activities that attract fees, practice sessions, muddy boots, expensive uniforms and lost Saturdays.

Nancy Schroeder, principal at the Auckland Academy of Dance, says children need chances to express themselves and learn to contribute to a creative whole – and dance is a good example of this.

“There’s something about the theatre – ultimately the children have to take responsibility. It’s that old cliche – the show must go on. They have to get the choreography right, they have to learn to do certain things, they have to play their part. Dance is a wonderful way of teaching discipline through something they like doing, rather than something they have to do.

“Learning to dance isn’t about going on to be a prima ballerina, or anything like that. Socially, something like dance pays off all through your life. Just because I don’t dance anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t use those skills in everyday life.

“Whether or not the intention is to become a prima ballerina, a commercial dancer, or a teacher, lawyer, bus-driver or waiter, dance gives a lifetime’s structure of emotional, physical and mental wellbeing that will see one through to old age.”

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