• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st May, 2007

Too much of a good thing? Children are losing out on down-time

Competing ideas about organized activities for young people have taken root in the United States. The first is that adult-supervised programs that provide academic assistance, sports and recreation, or enrichment learning during out-of-school hours increase young people's safety and positive development. The second idea is that such activities, in large doses, can lead to poor adjustment. The first proposition usually relates to children from low-income families who live in neighborhoods with relatively few such services, while the "over-scheduling hypothesis" is more often applied to children from more affluent backgrounds for whom a full menu of extracurricular activities is seen as a ticket into the most prestigious universities.The situation has gotten so bad according to Merilee Jones, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that the teenagers she now sees are "the most anxious, sleep-deprived, steeped-in-stress, judged, tested, poorly nourished generation." Jones is part of a growing chorus of admissions professionals calling on parents, high schools and colleges to reduce the pressure and give children more down-time. (High Anxiety of Getting Into College The New York Times)While all of this may be happening at the margins, a recent review of research evidence published in Social Policy Report finds that on the whole children are not over-scheduled, enjoy the activities they do participate in, and benefit from them greatly. [See "Organized Activity Participation, Positive Youth Development, and the Over-Scheduling Hypothesis" by Joseph L. Mahoney, Angel L. Harris, and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, Lansford in Social Policy Report, Volume XX, Issue 4, 2006]. Children generally do not participate in organized activities in excessive amounts according to a study of a nationally representative sample of U.S. youth included in the review. Young people, on average, spend 5 hours per week in such activities. Indeed other activities (e.g. playing games, watching TV) consume as much or more time than organized activities. Further, 40 percent of respondents did not participate in any organized activities.Proponents of the over-scheduling hypothesis describe a group of children being pressured by adults to participate in organized activities to realize academic and career aspirations. The authors, however, cite evidence from a number of surveys that asked children why they participate and found that most do so for enjoyment in the present rather than to achieve long-term goals. Children may indeed have different motivations from their parents. These findings held even for young people in affluent communities.Finally participation in organized activities generally promotes positive youth development (e.g. higher academic achievement, self-esteem, civic involvement, and high school completion, and lower low substance use and antisocial behaviors). And more participation is almost always better than less, although a few studies show a point of diminishing returns. Even those who spend 20 hours or more per week in organized activities display better functioning than their non-involved peers. The authors also point to evidence that the benefits are most substantial for children with the highest risk for poor development and when program quality is high and participation is sustained over time.The authors recommend that program directors and policymakers continue to support and develop organized activities for children during their out-of-school time. Rather than being concerned that some children are over-scheduled, decision-makers should focus on the large proportion of children who do not participate at all.

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