The busy lives of Russian children

Every weekday Alexei goes home from school in the afternoon, but his day does not end there. Monday is piano, Tuesday is chess, Wednesday is piano, Thursday is dance, and Friday is math lesson. Let’s not forget hockey on the weekend. 

This example is fictional, but Russians will for sure recognise this from their childhood. It is a pattern that I have not seen in any other part of the world. 

This traces back to a unique aspect of Russian culture; school is not everything for Russian children. Rather, parents believe that children need to develop themselves with many extra activities too. Like many other things in Russia, it can become extreme.

Something I always notice with Russians I meet, compared to other nationalities, is how they always play at least one musical instrument. Some can play piano, some can play violin and others guitar. I have almost never met someone who does not. 

Now that I have more contact with Russians, I also notice that most also have had training in two (or more) of the following: chess, dance, hockey, math, physics, programming, foreign languages, skating. The list goes on. 

Why is it so popular?

This is very common in Russia and has historical roots. In Soviet times many of these activity centres were founded. Formerly called Pioneer centres, they offer all kinds of activities such as the above and more to Russian children. There are even state plans to add extra subjects to prepare children for the future, such as innovation and technology. 

The key reason behind the popularity of these programmes is the price: the state supports many extra activities with high levels of funding. Parents can pay as little as a few hundred rubles a month to enroll their children. 

Back in Soviet times, this was a way to develop the “new Soviet citizens”. Even though a Communist future is no longer the goal, most parents still see the upsides of such a busy schedule. They want to develop their children in general and keep them busy with useful activities after school. Less iPads and smartphones, more creative thinking and physical exercise.

There is a competitive aspect to extra classes, too. Unlike in Western Europe, there is a very strong competitive streak in Russia. It is normal to take private lessons to prepare for key exams, for instance. I only see this pattern in well-off families in Sweden and Britain. Russians are also much more likely to tell me they want their children to be famous and talented in some way.

The fact that we often call these “hobbies” where I am from means that, by definition, they are relaxing, fun, and voluntary. In Russia however, math and physics classes for 6-year-olds clearly require a different label!

There can also be a negative side to these activities. Children become very very busy, naturally. Some like the activities, some don’t. Some may become exhausted. In the end, parents decide what they do and do not do. We have seen how Russia produces many star pianists and ballet dancers. But I have also heard stories from my Russian friends who told of how they would cry during lessons and nag their parents to not send them to extra classes anymore. So it really depends.

As for me, I do think having extra activities is a good way for helping children develop. If there is a good balance, it can have a good impact at this key stage of growing up. That said, physics lessons for 6-year-olds won’t be on my list!

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