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Enriched or stressed out?

Too many activities can stress children, but research says extra learning helps in long run

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BOUNTIFUL — At the end of every week, Marci Jacobs is shot. Running from dance lessons to softball practice to swimming lessons to piano to church activities, this mother of three said she looks forward to the weekends.

"But then we have (sports) games," Jacobs said. "I can't wait until school's back in session. Swimming's over, but then we have karate. And soccer is coming up."

Jacobs, like many parents, says she wants her kids to be enriched by new ideas, different people, and positive goals and activities outside those that home and school provide. These parents subscribe to the belief that active children are likely to become successful adults.

But a new movement throughout the country is butting heads with current thought that the early bird gets the worm. Calling for downsizing extra activities — and having children spend more time at home, hanging out with family and friends, tossing water balloons at a church picnic and kicking up sand at the playground — this small, vocal group relies more on gut feeling than research to justify cutting back and re-prioritizing.

"Researchers tend not to track these sort of things," said Bill Doherty, a professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and a counselor in private practice who advocates scaling back schedules. Doherty's recent talk to exhausted parents in Wayzata, Minn., spurred them to form Family Life 1st (www.familylife1st.org), a group whose mission is to ease the stress of over-scheduled families.

However, this movement still lurks in the shadow of the preponderance of research, which indicates activities do help children in the long run. Verne Larsen, a prevention specialist for the State Office of Education, said there are still more children with too much time on their hands and getting into trouble than there are over-scheduled youngsters burning out.

"Kids are less likely to get involved in substances (drugs) if in activities," Larsen said. "It's not saying they won't. But the research is strong."

Dorann C. Mitchell, a manager of the Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic at Primary Children's Medical Center, said research goes even a step further. In addition to helping build confidence and self-esteem, the stimulation offered by extracurricular activities has been shown to jump-start children intellectually.

"We know that at age 3, children's brains are like sponges," Mitchell said. "There are so many connections waiting to be used. If we don't use those, the connections are never made. It's good to offer kids a stimulating environment."

Yet counselors like Mitchell also see the flip side of over-scheduling — stress. That's why Mitchell said she sits in the middle of the debate.

When one of the balls a child is trying to juggle in the air falls, an overachiever may experience mood disorders, or "feeling like they're failures somehow. Like, 'I'm no good,' " she said.

Holly Cook-Tanner, who took third place at the 1990 World Figure Skating Championship and now teaches ice skating at Bountiful Recreation Center, said she began intense skating in the fourth grade and has no regrets.

"I just really enjoyed it," Cook-Tanner said. "It didn't come easy, but I kind of understood it. I had a good, supportive family. I started so young, I just skated. It was something so ingrained starting so young, it was part of my schedule."

In high school, she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to skate before school. She also spent several hours on the rink after school and said her social life in high school was low on her priority list because skating took up so much time.

Cook-Tanner recommends that children start skating when they're about 5, when most youngsters have enough balance and coordination to handle the ice.

Yet Cook-Tanner, who now has a family of her own, said she isn't pushing her children to lace up a pair of ice skates.

"They enjoy skating," Cook-Tanner said. "But it's nothing I'm going to pursue with them."

When children appear to be stressed from their schedules, Dr. Tom Metcalf, a general pediatrician in Salt Lake City, said he tries to determine whether the pressure is coming from the parents or the children.

Dr. Charles Ralston, a pediatrician and University of Utah professor whose speciality is behavior and development, said parents should watch for indications a child is under stress. "In general, the signs of stress tend to relate to what the kids are going through to begin with."

Young children may begin sucking their thumbs. Older children may appear angry or less focused. "I think that growing pains are a way to deal with stress," Ralston said.

"Stress is not always a bad thing. It produces enough tension in your body to deal with change. Growing pains occur at major times of psychological awareness."

E-MAIL: lhancock@desnews.com