Life in a small town was pretty simple and laid back for Sara. When she was small, the Filipina expatriate spent most of her after-school time in their front yard, playing games with the neighbours, or she would stay indoors, reading books and doing her homework.

On weekends, she would hit the outdoors to hunt for dragonflies and butterflies, climb trees or just wander aimlessly until her grandmother called out for lunch.
Things are totally different in a fast-paced, cosmopolitan city like Dubai. And since Sara’s childhood, times have changed.

Not only is there a plethora of video games children can get their hands on or ample internet time that keep them engaged, there’s an endless choice of extra-curricular activities that are keeping children busy today.

Talk about dance, gymnastics, music, soccer, tennis, cheerleading and art lessons. For some children, the list can be endless and their schedule as hectic as those of career professionals.

“I think most children in Dubai are very busy because now there is more of an emphasis on extra-curricular activities. It’s not like it used to be in the olden days when things were very academic-like. You make a more successful person by having a little bit of both — a bit of sports in you, a bit of music in you, some sort of an art quality in you as well as education.

These activities keep children more active during the day. I don’t want my children to sit for hours and hours in front of the television or computer. It’s not very healthy or good for them,” says Meena Javat an Indian mother of three children.

Yvonne Marion from Canada agrees that the list of fun and learning opportunities for children in Dubai is endless.

“There are a lot of choices here, especially in comparison to Canada, where everybody has their boys in baseball and hockey. Those are the big ones. While here, it’s endless,” she says.

Setting a path

Allowing children to pursue their own natural interests outside school is a great way to keep them active, help them build self-confidence and encourage them to gain a sense of responsibility. Children can create friendships, develop many skills and possibly set the path to a lifetime career.

It’s common to see children in Dubai taking two or three special classes. But while no parent wants to miss out on a great opportunity to build a strong foundation for their children’s future, the cost of development activities can put a strain on a family’s budget.
Parents say that school tuition indeed makes up a huge chunk of their expenses, but the cost of extra lessons can add up and get out of hand fast. Some parents spend between Dh20,000 and Dh30,000 a year on children’s activities.

Some trainers demand about Dh60 to over Dh100 for every 45 minutes or an hour of practice. Getting one child into a one-hour class per week during the school term can cost about Dh3,000 a year. The more children you have and the more activities you enroll them in, the bigger the budget you will need.

Why some parents shell out the cash

A devoted mum who only wants the best for her children, Meena Javat signs up each of her three children for at least two enrichment activities, from dance to swimming and tennis to piano lessons. These extra-curricular programmes keep her children busy outside of school and help them learn new skills as well.

Javat’s family spends over Dh20,000 a year just to pay for the children’s special classes, which are mostly done during week days. Adil, the eldest son, 12, is taking private tennis lessons and learning to play the drums, apart from playing cricket for his school.

Anneka, 11, is learning the piano and Kathak, a North Indian dance. Rhea, 7, appears to be the busiest among the siblings. The youngest daughter is taking dance, guitar and swimming lessons.

She admits that her children lead a very hectic life, far more hectic than what she used to at school in England. The cost can be pretty high, too, especially with three children taking different lessons. But she does not bother calculating the expenses and is even willing to spend as far as her purse allows.

“But I try to make the most of the lessons they go to. I speak to the teachers, liaise with them and make sure they’re getting the most out of that one hour or 45 minutes. And most of the time, I’m there to watch them because I’m paying for it and I want to get my money’s worth. I don’t have money to throw away and nobody does, especially the way things are today,” she says.

Though the activities cost a fortune, Javat feels strongly that they are worth every dirham spent. The Kathak dance classes at Gurukul, for one, are helping the girls gain good posture, sharpen their memory and relax.

“What ballet is to the western world, Kathak is to the Asian continent. It’s primarily focused on the alignment of body and balance. It’s very mentally relaxing as well and I’m already seeing the benefits in my girls,” Javat says.

Kathak’s promising benefits also encourage Dishna Mirchandani, another mother from India, to enroll her daughter in Gurukul. Since she has only one child, the cost is not that heavy on the wallet.

“The costs are very minimal compared to tuition at school. The school fees are the most expensive. Basically, I’d like to give my child what I definitely feel is very important for her. There are too many choices in Dubai but when it comes to music or dance, I prefer something more culture-based,” she adds.

Money’s worth

Yvonne Marion from Canada is getting her money’s worth by redirecting her two boys’ energy into something more positive and useful, like a self-defence class. Marion’s children, aged 11 and 8, are learning Wing Tzun, a Chinese martial arts form, through Emin Boztepe Martial Arts System at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre.

“Being boys, they’re at each other all the time so I thought maybe if they can learn how to control that and it would be beneficial as they get older as well as now, that would be great. The self-defence class is good for them. It helps control their anger as well as teach them skills that obviously could always be used,” Marion explains.

Aside from the martial arts classes, one of the children takes an art class and the other a comedy class. On Tuesdays, the mother takes them to a catechism class.
As the boys juggle at least two extracurricular courses, the cost of all their activities can reach about Dh10,000 a year.

But signing up her boys to just about anything is not something Marion feels is practical. Martial arts, coupled with a little bit of art or comedy, is enough to keep her children active.

Don’t despair: Make learning affordable

Extra-curricular activities are indeed a great way to set the path towards the future academic and lifelong success of your child. But the costs involved can put off some parents, especially those whose financial resources are dwindling.

Aside from the price of the course itself, parents have to pay for the uniforms, equipment and other accessories. Taking the child to and from practice alone can be costly in the long term.

For those on a tight budget, Somna Tugnait, director for projects at Gurukul, suggests that they negotiate with service providers to get course discounts.
“Instead of saying I can’t pay Dh300, say I’m happy if I can somehow get Dh150 or Dh200. Maybe the other person on the other end can try to work with you,” Tugnait advises.

Better deal

At Gurukul, parents can haggle to get a better deal.
“Let’s say you have two children. If you enroll both of them, you may get 10 per cent. If you sign them up for two classes a week, you get another 20 per cent. So now, instead of paying full, you’re paying 30 per cent less and we’re happy because we have two students taking two classes a week as against one. It works for everyone,” says Tugnait.
Marco Reefman from Holland who teaches Wing Tzun self-defence, agrees that there’s no harm in negotiating with service providers to save on practice fees.

“They can get a discount by enrolling more than two members, for example. There’s one family in my class who had signed up four members and they got a discount. It’s a good arrangement for everyone. Another way to minimise cost is by paying monthly,” he says.
With so many activities on offer in Dubai, Reefman observes that a lot of parents enroll their kids in more than two or three activities at the same time. This is a sure way to bust a family’s budget, he says.

“They send their kids to six or eight different classes. And of course, if you pay Dh300 per class, you end up paying more than Dh1,500 per month per kid. Parents should decide what their kids’ interests are and let them take the classes one at a time,” Reefman points out.

Costumes, of course, are another expense. Parents can minimise spending by buying the fabric in bulk and shopping around for a tailor that offers the best deal.
“For our students, we have found a tailor, somebody who charges almost half of what you would individually pay. We buy the fabric and book the tailoring job in bulk to get the best price,” says Tugnait.

To save money on transportation, organising a carpool is a good idea. “We have three people coming from the Arabian Ranches. Instead of coming individually to the class, we advised parents to let their children travel together in one car. In terms of who’s driving, they can take turns,” adds Tugnait.

For first-time parents or those who are planning to have a child, it’s best to start saving into a financial product as soon as possible. It will help you with the school fees and all those extra activities, says Gurnos Stonuary, business services director at Nexus Insurance Brokers.

“It is never too early to start financial planning, and the birth of a child is an excellent occasion to start putting thoughts into action, if you have not already done so,” Stonuary advises.

Another good money-saving option is to encourage your child to save towards the extra-curricular activities they want to do themselves. This will not only help them appreciate the value of their enrichment courses, they will also learn the value of money.

“Also, some children tend to start something with enthusiasm but quickly drop it when something more interesting comes along. By encouraging your child to save and contribute to their current activities, you will make them appreciate that dropping out wastes money,” notes Stonuary.

Embedded Script

Coping with changing economics

When the recession hit, the stream of students taking dance lessons at Gurukul thinned to a trickle. Gurukul is a Dubai-based organisation teaching Kathak, a rhythm-based Indian dance form that revolves around the concept of storytelling.

“Because of the recession, there’s been a huge cutback. We lost almost 60 to 70 per cent of our student body between January and March. Before that, we used to have a very nice strength of 80 to 85 people, then all of a sudden, it slipped. We went down to 17 to 18 students. That was scary. We were thinking, are we doing the right thing,” recalls Somna Tugnait, director for projects at Gurukul.

Things started to get better a few months later and Gurukul currently has more than 60 students. But 60 is not a good number, considering the cost involved in running a dance school.

“I wouldn’t say we’re doing very well. We’re struggling, but we are trying our level best. We are putting in all our resources. Fortunately, both Pali Chandra (the artistic director and force behind Gurukul) and myself are well supported by our spouses, so we are able to carry it through,” says Tugnait.

Gurukul is renting studios on an hourly basis at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac) in Mall of the Emirates and at the Pearl Residence in Bur Dubai. The company spends about Dh4,000 a month just to cover the rent. “Renting different studios is one way to keep overhead costs to a minimum. We don’t take somebody permanently for accounting. We contract out everything, including public relations, web-designing, to save on costs. But we’re definitely not making enough money,” Tugnait confides.

Their goal is to get at least 80 students to break even and Tugnait is confident that the market will pick up in the next few months. “I have so much belief in Dubai. Yes, it’s a rough time. Yes, we don’t have the money to sort of do the best of what we can for everyone else. But it’s not the time to lose culture,” she adds.

For Marco Reefman, who teaches Wing Tzun self-defence at Ductac, the rent is a huge factor affecting his part-time business. Reefman, who works in logistics and sales by day and teaches martial arts by night, is currently training 15 students at Ductac. He also does private lessons outside and trains with a friend in another centre twice or three times a week.

“So, all in all, I spend maybe eight to 10 hours a week on classes, that’s including private and group trainings. If I do this full time, 15 students would be a bit disappointing. About 50 per cent of my income at Ductac alone goes to the rent. It’s very hard for me to recoup the overhead costs,” Reefman says.

He had considered the idea of renting a small warehouse in Dubai and convert it into a gym. But the processes and costs involved in setting things up has put him off.
“Renting any space here is a fortune. On top of that, everything is expensive here. In my case I don’t mind if I don’t make a lot of money, but if you want this to be your bread and butter, it’s going to be difficult” he says.

Things to do for kids

Indian dance (Kathak) 

Self defense (Wing Tzun) 
1hr & 15min 
Emin Boztepe

Dh60 to Dh70 
Kid's Threatre Works

Piano/Guitar/ Violin/Drums/ Voice 
Popular Music Institute

8 weeks Catwalkers

Dh40 to Dh300 
15 to 60min 
Super Sports Swimming Academy

Do you keep track of how much you spend on your child’s activities? Is it becoming costlier to raise children? Tell us