With childhood obesity in the Gulf on the rise and Type 2 diabetes now widespread, the Ministry of Education's move to promote extra-curricular activities should be heralded as a positive commitment to improving both the health and learning potential of the country's children. Research has shown that participation in after-school programmes leads to improved performance in school, both in terms of social and developmental maturity. But how many hours a week do parents need to spend in a car to get their children to chess club, karate and tango and tumble? As a mother of two, I find that my children's health, education and well-being are of primary importance. School may be fun, but according to my daughters, after-school activities are more fun, and I am determined to keep up with the demands of my children's extra-curricular education. So much so that I ignored certain practical considerations, like my work commitments, when I signed the children up to all sorts of activities in and around Abu Dhabi. With a lack of organised transport from school to after-school club, I knew pleasing two demanding girls would only ever be vaguely manageable. However, I didn't realise it would be quite this bad. After a week of reviewing our after-school commitments (and those of my friends), I have concluded that my primary role these days is that of devoted chauffeur. Twice a week the girls need to go in opposite directions across the city simultaneously. This would, of course, be impossible if it wasn't for a rather complicated barter system that I have devised with other mums in similar situations. If I wasn't working in Dubai, Sundays and Mondays would be an easy start to the week with only one extra-curricular engagement in two days. However, in reality, after two days at work, I have not only my own children's clubs to attend to, but I also need to return the favours I've cashed in during my absence. On Tuesday, my eldest daughter stays at school for puppet making classes while I pick up the youngest and her friend and bolt to Khalifa B (near the airport) for a gymnastics class. A friend drives my eldest daughter home, as her club finishes at the same time as gymnastics. By Wednesday, we are at our peak. I normally collect four children, two of whom attend ballet while the other two pretend to do homework. Either I hand over three children to a friend to take to swimming classes while I race with my eldest (always late) to pick up an additional four girls for their gymnastics class, or, if I am not on the gymnastics roster, a neighbour will drop the eldest home while I do the ballet/swimming combo. By Thursday, I am exhausted and grateful to have narrowly avoided signing my rather shy eldest daughter up for drama classes. This is the day for play dates, so the afternoon is spent either entertaining a host of children or driving my children to and from friends' houses. With no spare time during the week, horse riding lessons in Shahama have been squeezed in on Saturdays, otherwise known as birthday party day.
Confused? So am I. Of course, if all extra-curricular activities took place at the school at synchronised times with other siblings, the logistical challenge would be minimised. But in reality, if you're a parent of more than one child and have - voluntarily or involuntarily - signed up for after-school education, spending afternoons in the car is virtually inevitable. My case is neither isolated nor extreme. Catriona Turlier, a mother of three and a full-time teacher, says she was forced to cut down the amount of after-school activities her children attend. "Last year the two eldest were doing seven activities each," she says. "We were all too busy." Still, Turlier's two club-aged children are occupied in some form of extra-curricular activity every school day and she admits that while she enjoys it now, once her youngest reaches club age, factoring in an extra set of clubs will be impossible to manage. The working mum Karen Lovatt doesn't have the luxury of spending her afternoons hauling children around the club circuit. "I get home at around 6pm," she explains. "There's no time for clubs. It's dinner, bath and bed." While Lovatt believes she and her children are missing out, paying a driver is not an option. "Apart from the costs involved, my seven-year-old daughter lacks confidence and would need a parent to be present." Monica Abounasr, a mother of three from Brazil, is an advocate of extra-curricular education - so much so that she recently hired a driver to help transport her children to their after-school activities. In addition to two school-based clubs, Abounasr's older daughter attends ballet, swimming, Arabic, piano and gymnastics classes, while her son plays golf, studies Arabic and has swimming, piano and football coaching. For the moment, Abounasr's four-year-old daughter does just one activity. "Activities encourage independence and are important for children's social development," Abounasr explains. "Free time to play with friends is important, but I don't want them coming home from school and doing nothing every day. The problem is, I'm a paranoid mum. I call the driver every five minutes to remind him to slow down. Most days, I pick the children up from school, drop them home and return to work, but if I have time, I like to drive them myself. When I wasn't working I was driving the whole day but I liked it." The work/mother balance is impossible without some sort of compromise. Take Elizabeth Campbell, for example. She gave up her full-time job to devote more time to her two boys. After dropping Beavers because of lack of time, the boys' combined total of seven activities may look lean compared to Abounasr's, but the boys' timetables are often in conflict. Campbell says it would be impossible to manage without the help of other mums to share lifts around town. "It's true I feel like a taxi driver, but I choose to do it," she says. "Besides, it's really easy here and there's so much on offer." Asked whether she worried that being so busy was having a negative impact on her children's school day, Campbell admitted that completing homework can be a struggle. But she is convinced that if the boys spent more time at home they would be sitting in front of a TV or computer. It seems that after-school clubs are here to stay, and the Government's encouragement of such activities should be congratulated. The meters are off, but parental taxi drivers are investing in the future to secure their children's health, social maturity and education potential.