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The Overscheduled Child?

Publication Date: 2007-03-14

This is from The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 16, 20007.

Before all those extracurricular activities and community-service projects listed on college applications, there were play groups, library hours, Pop Warner football games, swimming lessons, ballet, drama, soccer. Not to mention preparation for high-stakes tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, or the mounting minutes, even hours, of homework reported by students from elementary school on. Is there any time left for free play? Or are children and teenagers way too overscheduled?

The controversy never seems to go away completely, and several big-name scholars and medical groups have now set it off again. First came a report from the psychologist Joseph L. Mahoney and his co-authors: No, they said, participating in organized activities does not harm children; indeed, it seems to improve their grades, self-esteem, and other measures of well-being and to protect them from drug abuse, particularly among disadvantaged youth. Now both David Elkind, a child psychologist, and a committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics have weighed in: Let children slow down and reach within their own imaginations to just plain have fun, they urge; today's children are overscheduled, overstressed, and overstimulated. What's a parent to believe?

Joseph L. Mahoney, Yale University; Angel L. Harris, University of Texas at Austin; and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor: The existing studies that have considered the amount of organized activity participation in relation to youth adjustment provide no direct support that youth are overscheduled in organized activities. These same studies do provide substantial evidence in support of the positive youth-development perspective. Across a wide range of indicators, youth who participate in organized activities show more healthy functioning than those who do not (e.g., academic achievement, self-esteem, substance use and antisocial behaviors, school belonging, civic involvement, educational/career aspirations, high-school completion, and postsecondary educational attainment and job quality). This holds for studies that were cross-sectional or longitudinal and that controlled for demographic factors and/or youth's prior adjustment, whether the research sample was small and regionally based or large scale, [whatever] the historical time frame when data were collected, or whether the studies measured organized activity participation in terms of weekly hours or the total number of activities that youth participated in at one time. In many cases, indicators of well-being were found to increase in a linear fashion as the number of organized activities or hours of participation increased. ("Organized Activity Participation, Positive Youth Development, and the Over-Scheduling Hypothesis," Social Policy Report)

David Elkind, Tufts University: Over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities. In contrast, the amount of time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote to passive spectator leisure, not counting television but including sports viewing, has increased fivefold from 30 minutes to over three hours. The disappearance of play from the lives of our children is mirrored in the media. Television programs rarely depict children as simply playing and having a good time. More often they are portrayed as high-achieving mini-adults or as preoccupied with school issues or family problems such as divorce, substance abuse, AIDS, and job loss. Even the cartoons have changed. Fred Flintstone and George Jetson never let work get in the way of having fun. Bob the Builder and SpongeBob SquarePants, on the other hand, love their jobs. SpongeBob was even named Employee of the Month at the fast-food restaurant where he works. When did life for a child get to be so hard? ...

Our schools are now contributing to the suppression of curiosity, imagination, and fantasy. Growing numbers of elementary schools are eliminating recess in favor of more time for academics. Our increasingly test-driven curricula have all but eliminated creative and playful teaching practices. (The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children)

American Academy of Pediatrics: Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. This birthright is challenged by forces including child labor and exploitation practices, war and neighborhood violence, and the limited resources available to children living in poverty. However, even those children who are fortunate enough to have abundant available resources and who live in relative peace may not be receiving the full benefits of play. Many of these children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play. ...

American children with adequate resources may be limited from enjoying the full developmental assets associated with play because of a family's hurried lifestyle as well as an increased focus on the fundamentals of academic preparation in lieu of a broader view of education. ("The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds," Pediatrics)

John Cloud, writer: The idea that kids should slow down and trade electronic pleasures for pastoral ones is a fine example of transference. (Aren't you really the one who wants to lose the BlackBerry and go fishing?) But there's not much evidence that the ways childhood has changed in the past 25 years â?? less unstructured play, more gadgets, rough college admissions â?? are actually hurting kids. Just the opposite. ...

Childhood is an invention of modernity; for most of history, kids lived and worked alongside adults. That's not to say we shouldn't value a period of carefree shelter for our young. But the next time you're hauling the kid from basketball to SAT prep to violin, ask yourself whether it is she who really wants a break â?? or you. ("The Overscheduled Child Myth," Time)

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