Constance Watson

Join the club

The rise and rise of extra-curricular activities for children

Join the club
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I’m bored.’ ‘Read a book.’ This sequence more or less summarises my childhood (along with ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘Eat some fruit.’) At the time, such instruction was loathsome and it never ceased to amaze me that the grown-ups didn’t seem to grasp the fact that I had obviously considered, and rejected, the idea of picking up a book. They never appeared to be sympathetic to my boredom, in spite of my heartiest attempts to reflect the ennui that was oozing from my every pore. In fact, boredom was positively encouraged by our parents — it was the mother of invention.

Those were the days. For many of today’s parents, boredom is not so much the mother of invention as the father of failure. It’s a prospect feared by the young, and abhorred by parents who can’t bear the thought of their little darlings not being subjected to a constant whirligig of entertainment.

A recent report carried out by Macmillan Digital Education’s Maths Doctor found that primary school children in the UK are engaged in an average of 3.2 extra-curricular activities per week, and that these can cost in excess of £3,000 per year per child. The charity Action for Children has published data suggesting that parents stump up for endless supplementary clubs because they fear their children will be shunned at school if they don’t participate. In fact, this was (worryingly) found to be a more commonplace concern than whether or not children were struggling with their schoolwork.

If you think it sounds bonkers that parental inadequacy can lead both to bankruptcy and to spending hours and hours ferrying children from ballet to piano practice to tiddlywinks championships and back again, you’ll be even more astounded by the nature of the classes. Traditional disciplines such as musical instruments, gymnastics and language lessons are fading from popularity, elbowed off the stage by more unusual, more expensive and more time-consuming competitors.

So what are British schoolchildren engaging in beyond actual school? When it comes to physical activity, football doesn’t quite cut it. Classes offering ‘nurturing’ yoga to children and babies are cropping up all over the country. If that sounds too ‘Hello birds! Hello sky!’ you can partake in a rather different sport: shooting. Gunmakers Holland & Holland now have shooting classes for children from the age of nine that will set you back about £100 a lesson. You can also join in on something called a Young Shots morning — but good luck trying, since these are ‘always fully booked.’ Holland & Holland’s managing director Daryl Greatrex tells me that a lot of parents choose these mornings as they ‘allow children to meet other keen shots their own age’.

If your children love excitement but aren’t too keen on guns, fear not! Children’s adventure planners are on hand to inject the long, empty days of the school holidays with pure, unadulterated fun. Take Sharky & George, a children’s entertainment company run by Old Etonians Charlie Astor and George Whitefield. The two have created a ‘catalogue of experiences’, which include a London Sightseeing Quest — with family tickets starting at £1,500 — that features briefings from ‘an MI5 agent’ and races around the Houses of Parliament.

They also do a science day of potions and launching rockets (just don’t tell Elon Musk). ‘The adventure packages started because clients were saying how much their children loved our entertainers, and asking us if they were around over half-term to spend the day with their children,’ Whitefield tells me. ‘We don’t make too much of an effort to make it educational. Fun is the main priority.’

If this seems too exuberant, there are plenty of more tranquil alternatives — such as cookery courses at Raymond Blanc’s Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford. Designed ‘to enrich, inspire and exhaust even the most unlikely junior master chefs’, Blanc’s cookery courses will teach your child important life lessons such as using seasonal vegetables, and charge you £185 for the joy of it. Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, Hampshire, runs something similar for ‘Nippers’: two-hour courses that will set you back £65. Chewton Glen, also in the New Forest, offers an Easter-egg making course which, at £45, is considerably more than a Cadbury’s from your local Tesco. I’m told these workshops are good fun and memorable (and perhaps educational to boot) —- but is there anything wrong with a jam tart?

And don’t forget the extra-curricular activities designed to turn your child into a superswot. There’s a huge overlap between children who have extra academic tuition and those subject to the merry-go-round of adult-approved fun. Woody Webster, founder of Bright Young Things Tuition, tells me that ‘over half of our students — all of whom engage with tutor-led intense revision — are also involved with extracurricular activities in their free time.’

And then there are those activities that attempt to combine the two. Tarka London ‘offers developmental exercise for pre-school children,’ says founder Oliver Holcroft. ‘We try and focus on the things that nurseries don’t. Our classes target different parts of brain development [from the ones involved in reading and writing], with games to help balance, or to aid bilateral coordination and gross motor skills.’ What sort of games? ‘We have balancing beams and pirate games and games with coloured lily pads — lots of ball sports for hand-eye coordination and problem-solving through play with shapes and colours. Using shapes and colours encourages children to think for themselves and to think collectively as a team,’ Holcroft says earnestly.

Holcroft believes the popularity of his classes (there is a long waiting list, and clients are rumoured to include the Cambridges) is due to the variety, as opposed to ‘lots of extra-curricular products that only offer one specific discipline’.

However, it’s not all absurd. The rise in hysterical parents shoving fun down their children’s throats has meant that some traditional activities are experiencing a renaissance. Take Knitting For All, where for £10 a lesson, children can make soft toys or clothes. Founder Kerry Kimber attributes Knitting For All’s popularity to its educational value. ‘Knitting supports the curriculum in that there are various learning outcomes that teachers like to see. In knitting, children are learning about spatial recognition and about simple maths.’ But Kimber’s business also helps those parents who don’t have the time — or the desire — to sit and develop these skills with their children.

Be it modest or immodest, energetic or serene, there’s a class for every mood and every taste. And if all else fails, read a book.