To win at the starting line, a considerable number of parents would arrange tuition and a variety of interest classes for their children. Hence, a child’s daily schedule is always packed, be it after school or during school holidays.

As the adage goes, haste makes waste, so would excessive activities do more harm to the development of children?

Some parents would advance the “battle line” to preschool education, lest their kids lag behind. They might even enroll their newborn in different playgroups soon after birth. Some young children have been attending various foreign language classes since an early age, and there are a great many interest classes available, ranging from piano, painting and opera to playing Go, tennis and golf. “It may not do children any good if they are kept too busy and preoccupied with over-intensive learning. On the contrary, leaving appropriate space for them may be more beneficial to their development,” says Dr Amelia Lee, Head of Early Childhood and Elementary Education, School of Continuing Education.

Space advantage

Dr Lee remarks that one-child families where two full-time working parents hire a domestic helper are rather common in Hong Kong. Lacking time to care for their offspring while having high expectations, many parents tend to arrange plenty of after-school activities so as to nurture them as well as to fill up their schedule.

“The kid’s daily schedule is preset, as are the interests and pastimes. Every day is chock-a-block with hardly any room for the child to consider what he/she really wants. As time goes by, it becomes extremely difficult for the kid to learn self-directing.” Dr Lee stresses that leaving some space every day for children to do whatever they like would be more beneficial to the development of their creativity and imagination.

Sleep-deprived preschoolers

According to the findings of a recent survey, the majority of preschoolers aged between three and six do not get sufficient sleep. The amount of sleep that about 90% of the interviewed kids get nightly falls short of the recommended 11 to 12 hours; and 2.4% of them sleep a mere seven hours or even less a day. Dr Lee points out that sleeping is crucial for children’s brain development, especially for young children, who must have sufficient sleep to ensure balanced growth.

Taking half-day kindergarten students as an example, after-school interest classes with a duration of a maximum of two hours is suitable, says Dr Lee. The class should focus on singing, exercising or outdoor activities instead of knowledge acquisition. “Learning languages, mathematics, or musical instruments after school is too big a load; yet playing games for over three to four hours is excessive for young kids too. No matter how energetic the kids are, they will ultimately burn out.”

Hyperactivity disorder increasingly common

In recent years, more and more children are reported to have hyperactivity disorder. Dr Lee believes that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is insufficient rest. “An apparently exhausted kid may somehow remain restless and may be unwilling to go to bed. In this case, the parents should review whether the daytime activities are too intensive for the child. Too much external stimulation may cause delirium, so the kid may be unable to sit still despite feeling fatigue. Long-term insufficient rest may lead to a vicious cycle and possibly cause hyperactivity. Some of them may be wrongly diagnosed with hyperactivity disorder or attention deficiency.

Apart from excessive after-school activities and interest classes, electronic devices such as cell phones and tablets also overstimulate the developing brain. Fast-paced and full of visual stimulation, electronic games can be addictive. While they can boost a kid’s responsiveness, they may make him/her restless and uninterested in quiet activities such as reading. This may not be beneficial to the kid’s analytical thinking and overall intellectual development. “It’s inadvisable for parents to give a child an electronic gadget as a pacifier. It’s in fact not a bad idea to keep babies and toddlers away from electronic devices.”

Quality first

Dr Lee nevertheless stresses that systematic learning and appropriate stimulation are very important for childhood development, citing a neuroscience theory that says: early development, which may affect a young child’s learning and academic performance, is highly critical to his/her future prospects. Yet a considerable number of parents overdo this by employing a variety of products and training methods that claim to be effective in boosting toddlers’ language and cognitive abilities, cramming too much into children.

“Today, in Hong Kong, we do not really need to worry about kids not getting enough stimulation. Instead we need to pay attention to whether the things that adults would like to instil into their kids’ minds are systematic and of good quality.” She gives an example by pointing out that some Hong Kong-born parents communicate with their young kids only in English without regard to the quality of the language. She says this is inappropriate and runs counter to the adults’ expectations.

In Dr Lee’s opinion, parents should understand that life is like running a marathon. There is no need to contend for the lead right at the starting line. Leaving some space in a child’s schedule does no harm at all. By spending more time and putting their heads together, parents and kids may come up with some activities that are meaningful and interesting to both, and consequently derive greater benefit for a child’s development. For example, parents could consider making bedtime stories part of a nightly routine with their young children as it can help develop language ability as well as foster a positive and healthy parent-child relationship.