School study tips: Why do high schoolers need extra curricular activities?

Many students, when they come to high school, often question why they need to study all the subjects covering such a wide range – including subjects which they feel have no relevance to life or their proposed careers. This leads to some amount of frustration, boredom, and loss of motivation. In some cases it even results in overall sense of disconnect and hatred for studies. With growing competition, both teachers and parents at times tend to push students only towards academics, so much so that children feel they will be loved, appreciated or acknowledged only if they score high marks. This can lead to either forced rigorous studies only to score better marks, or giving up on studies altogether.

Since WHO enunciated the Ten Life Skills that lead to holistic development of children, we are better equipped to understand how to guide them towards successful life. This can be achieved by inculcating the life skills through extra-curricular activities that will not only empower the students, but will also make their daily life more interesting, joyful and meaningful. The right time to start is when a child reaches adolescence or enters high school.

Unfortunately some adults seem to believe that there is a clear divide between curricular (read “grades”) and extra-curricular, which they think are a waste of time and are to be tolerated only when a child has finished with his studies, since he will be facing board exams and rigorous entrance exams soon. This is a very wrong notion. There are many extra-curricular activities that can actually enhance the learning of children and prepare them to deal with the challenges that they will encounter in adult life, thus making them more successful in their professional and personal life.

Extra-curricular activities can be broadly classified as follows:

  • Sports and athletics, including yoga or karate
  • Performing arts: dance, music, quizzing etc.
  • Creative hobbies: painting, sculpture, games design
  • Life skills development
  • Social work

Each of the above five has relevance to a child’s overall development. Not all schools can provide all these, but whether a school can provide in-house facilities or not, children should be encouraged and facilitated to pursue such activities from time to time. The development of the mind and body are inter-connected and many of these activities actually enhance learning. When a child gets a chance to do activities that he considers ‘fun’, he is more open to getting back to serious studies, and his mind and body are better equipped to take in the knowledge and retain it.

One common complaint which is quite justified is that they do not want to sit for hours in a stuffy classroom staring at the blackboard or the teacher. It can be quite physically stressful in many ways: the neck stiffens, blood circulation is restricted, eyes come under strain and digestion slows down. Mentally, there is a strain on the mind if there is continuous bombardment of data and information and there is no stimulation to respond. Let us accept the fact that the education system is primarily one-way, a remnant of the ‘chalk-and talk’ technique which does not allow a student to bring out his thoughts, feelings or ideas.

Overall the concept of six-seven classes in sequence is perhaps the worst possible way to punish young minds and bodies, more so when hormones have been activated in adolescence. Long ago sociologists cautioned us that the ‘Z’ position of sitting on a chair is not at all healthy and conducive, yet we make children do it day after day for long periods of time. Extra-curricular activities are the only relief they get from this torture.

A major advantage of most extra-curricular activities is that children are made to move, stretch their bodies, flex their hands, explore beyond the routine, use their minds to create, evolve or modify something – rather than just have information intakes thrust into their unwilling minds.

The other factor to be taken into account is that we have entered into an era of information explosion (Data Mining, Analysis and Management is going to be a very lucrative career option in the coming years). The role of teachers providing information or data is long over. Hence if a child is motivated, a self-learner, then the number of hours spent in classroom learning can be significantly reduced.

It is also ironical that learning Life Skills is still considered to be an extra-curricular activity. Students cannot pass their Board exams or complete their basic education unless they can remember when the First Battle of Panipat took place (when all historical data is available on the Internet at the touch of a button), if they cannot comprehend algebra or trigonometry (when all calculations can be done infinitely faster and error-free by machines), if they cannot grasp the grammar of three languages (when spell-check and grammar-check can be set in default mode to make corrections). On the other hand, let us look at the list of life skills propounded by World Health Organization:

  • Problem solving
  • Decision making
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Interpersonal relations
  • Empathy
  • Self awareness
  • Managing emotions
  • Management of stress

One glance will make it clear that extensive work has gone into identifying these vital skills, and they determine how well a person will be able to deal with issues and challenges of life. Most of the life skills are developed and sharpened through extra-curricular activities. When children are given opportunity to take up activities they like and enjoy, they allow their minds to go far beyond the restrictions of academic learning, and thus they become more capable.

Learning to focus in fun activities sharpens the overall concentration ability of a student. Perseverance in games or hobbies teaches a child to spend significant time on one single activity without break. Doing creative work enhances the ability of a student to look outside-the-box and hence find ways and means to tackle new problems and assignments. Facing opponents in competitive activities sharpens decision making and problem solving skills. Team activities boost communication and inter-personal skills. Friction, conflict and misunderstandings in group activities teach them to manage stress and emotions.

Many top mathematicians have been excellent musicians, because music helps them develop their rhythmic intelligence which helps in repetitive calculations. Most outstanding people and great achievers have inevitably had hobbies or other interests, and amazingly they have pursued their passion even when they climbed the ladder of success had had busy lives. If anyone were to ask them how they find time for such unconnected activities, they would probably say that their interests and hobbies energize them, motivate them and in many cases also help them generate ideas to become more effective in their work.

Research on dementia and Alzheimer’s has shown that those who utilize all parts of their brain i.e. logical, mathematical, creative, emotional, interpersonal, sequential, critical, verbal, kinesthetic and rhythmic are ensuring that their mind remains active and in good shape, reducing chances of memory loss or dementia. Children may not realize it, but as they move into adult life and when they face more responsibilities in senior positions, they will be in a much better position to face challenges and remain efficient as age catches up with them. This stimulation of all parts of the brain is done if there is a healthy balance of academics and extra-curricular activities in the growing years, before the student selects his courses for higher education.

Unfortunately many parents are not aware of the benefits of various extra-curricular activities. We have already entered into an era where behavioral scientists have enunciated that Emotional Intelligence will play an 80% role in the success, fulfillment and happiness of people. We have innumerable examples of ‘street-smart’ students who have overtaken the toppers in practical life and have made very bright careers for themselves. At the same time, quite promising and lucrative careers are now available through recognized university courses in areas like sports, music, dance, performing arts etc. Hence there is a dire need for a change in their mind-set.

How to balance academics and extra curricular activities

Let us now look into the practical aspects of how both these needs are fulfilled without compromising on either:

  • A time table or calendar can be made at the beginning of the academic year, with teachers and students both participating (it would be wonderful if parents are invited too). The weeks and months when there is less pressure of exams can be identified and earmarked for additional activities.
  • This calendar should be shown to parents so that they are aware and do not resist or prevent their children from participation. If a few parents with talent in some extra-curricular activities can be requested to devote a few hours per month to help all children to learn skills, it will be an added bonus without any cost.
  • Schools can make a check-list of possible extra-curricular activities and send it to parents for their comments as to which ones they approve of for their child, where the child has interest and talent, and in what way they are willing to support the activity (like parents who help children do their revision or home work after school). See box at the end for a representative list of activities – many more can be added.
  • Explore the entire campus of the school and find out which places can be used for what activities e.g. a kitchen garden in an unused corner, an impromptu open air theatre for debates, quiz or theatre.
  • Make a list of activities that can be done whenever a teacher is absent and students are free for that period.
  • Many activities can be done within the short break times if decided in advanced and implemented systematically. Casual supervision by a designated teacher to guide them will be useful.
  • Mock meetings of school management, with students taking role of Principal etc can elicit many ideas and allow children to vent out their feelings.
  • Most useful would be to give students an opportunity to come out with ideas (adults will be amazed at their brains, ideas and creativity), and small awards can be given for the best suggestions.

One area of concern is the way extra-curricular activities are curtailed, both by parents and teachers, at the time of exams. Very few realize that when the stress and tension of the exam builds up, it is extra-curricular activities that provide a much needed relief and the ‘breaks’ which are essential for a student to recharge his batteries and get back with greater vigor to his studies and preparation. Many students who develop fever or headaches at the time of exams, or who suddenly forget important formulae or definitions in the examination hall can be de-stressed by taking up some activity that they enjoy and are good at. Just a few minutes or hours of such activity every day goes a long way in bringing down the tension that builds up in some students resulting in poor performance in crucial exams.

If carefully crafted some of the extra-curricular activities can also help in connecting to selected subjects and academics. For city children, any sojourn into rural areas and nature can add greatly to practical exposure and learning which supplements what they read in books. Each such excursion can be tailored by different teachers to give some goals for the students to explore things that will help them to connect, relate and understand their lessons better.

List of possible extra curricular activities for high schoolers:

  • Each student who has attained proficiency in one extra-curricular activity can be given 3 minutes every day to talk about that activity.
  • Games like tug-of-war that can be completed in minutes, and held anywhere.
  • Project to survey the area around the school and come out with practical ideas for improving the environment.
  • Each student meets up with one child in the vicinity who has a disability or special needs and reports to the group.
  • Quick debates with 3 minute presentations by each speaker.
  • Kitchen garden in unused corner of school grounds, or even at home.
  • Harnessing solar energy to energize some lights or make solar cookers.
  • Trash collection, segregation and disposal.
  • Making compost for fertilization and if possible even for gas.

This is just a representative list, many more can be added by brainstorming between parents, children and teachers.

By Ali Khwaja

Career Guidance

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