After School, Kids' Workloads Grow Heavier

Over the past few years, kids' after-school schedules have become increasingly packed with organized extracurricular activities.

Michele Norris talks with three fourth-graders and their principal about the downsides and benefits of a packed schedule. She also talks with child development expert David Elkind, whose latest book is The Power of Play.

Excerpt: 'The Power of Play'

Book cover

From the introduction:

Over the last two decades alone, children have lost twelve hours of free time a week, and eight of those lost hours were once spent in 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 watching sports, has increased five-fold from 30 minutes to over three hours. The disappearance of play in the lives of our children is mirrored by the media. In our television programs children are rarely depicted as simply playing and having a good time. More often they are portrayed as highly achieving mini-adults. In other shows children are 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 their fun. Bob the Builder and Spongebob Squarepants, love their jobs. Spongebob even won "Employee of the Month" at the fast food restaurant where he works. When did life for a child get to be so hard?

Three Ways to Tell If Your Child Is Overscheduled:

  • Pre-school kids show it in physical ways: headaches, stomachaches, etc.
  • School-aged kids show it in the form of bad grades, physical fights and problems with their friends
  • Teens handle stress in the same way as adults -- by acting out, using drugs and alcohol, etc.

The health consequences of the disappearance of play from children lives are already apparent. At the first ever Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health in 2000, it was reported that, "Growing numbers of children are suffering needlessly because their emotional, behavioral and developmental needs are not being met by the very institutions that were explicitly created to take care of them." The number of children suffering these problems is now over twenty percent of the child population. Moreover, the surgeon general also suggests that some two-thirds of children in this country suffer one or another health problem. Thirteen percent of our children are obese. We have more than 2 million children on Ritalin and other ADHD medications. This may be the first generation of American children who are less healthy than their parents.

Three Tips for Parents of Overscheduled Children:

  • For school-aged kids, limit activities to three per week (one social activity like scouts, one sports activity, one arts activity).
  • Remember that it's okay for kids to be bored.
  • There should be at least one time a week set aside for family time: a meal, a trip, even watching TV or seeing a movie together.

The psychological consequences of the failure to engage in free, self-initiated and spontaneous play are equally serious and equally worrisome. Because children are spending so much time in front of television, and other screens, there is little time for exercising their predispositions for fantasy, imagination and creativity. These are the mental tools required for success in higher-level math and science. The failure to nurture these mental tools is, in part at least, one of the reasons we are falling behind other countries in attracting young people into these fields. For example, enrollment in U.S. Science and Engineering graduate education peaked in 1993, declined through 1998, and rose to near its record level by 2001. Graduate enrollment in engineering and computer science drove the recent growth, mostly because of foreign students. Enrollment in most other science fields remained level or declined.

Our schools are now contributing to the suppression of curiosity, imagination and fantasy. Some 40 thousand (and counting) elementary schools have eliminated recess in favor of more time for academics. Our increasingly test-driven curricula have all but eliminated creative, and playful teaching practices. Increasingly rote-learning methods are used to prepare children for the all too frequent assessments. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that education either "liberates" or "domesticates." Colonial powers once used rote-learning methods to domesticate the natives of the country, and to make them obedient to external authority. Rote learning is an anathema to, critical, and innovative, thinking. It is telling, I believe, that the youth magazine which best illustrated this kind of irreverent thinking, Mad Magazine, stopped publication in 2000. Although it is now online, it probably serves an older generation.

All of these concerns are why I wrote this book. A quarter of a century ago I wrote another book entitled The Hurried Child. At that time I was working as a clinician, as well as a college professor. I was increasingly concerned with the mental health problems I saw in my young patients who were being pressured to grow up too fast, too soon. The Hurried Child was written to alert parents, and educators, to risks involved in hurrying children. Since that book was written, I have given up most of my clinical work and become more concerned with the broader family, and social issues that affect children. In a book published more than a decade later, Ties That Stress, I tried to a highlight a new, broader problem — a troubling new need imbalance within our society. Up to the middle of the twentieth century, the need imbalance was in favor of children and adolescents. Their needs came first. Over the second half of the twentieth century, and continuing into the 21st, the imbalance has shifted in favor of parents and adults.

Consider the fact that children are now regarded as consumers, a niche population, to be targeted directly with little, or no, concern for parental approval of the advertised product. Today, high-fat, high-salted foods, sugared soft drinks, disposable fad toys, and much more, are all marketed directly to children. Quality television programming for children, which brings relatively low revenue for the producers, is now but a small part of contemporary TV fare. And the programming at family hours is increasingly rife with foul language, overtly sexual, and/or violent. Many computer games for children are equally inappropriate. One hardly needs any more evidence of how some adults are putting their profit motives ahead of the needs of children. What I did not fully appreciate when I wrote Ties That Stress, was an unintended consequence of this new need imbalance. It was the silencing of children's play. All too often children's need for play has been exploited and redirected to serve commercial ends. And, all too often, children's spontaneous active play has been transformed into passive audience participation.

These observations, together with the facts with which I opened this discussion, have made me reconsider the role of play in child development. While I always regarded play as important, I took for granted that children played and used this play to nourish their cognitive, social and emotional development. But I never took the time, nor made the effort, to articulate how play contributed to healthy development at successive age levels. I now appreciate that the silencing of children's play, is as harmful to healthy development, if not more so, than is the hurrying of children to grow up too fast too soon.

Excerpted from The Power of Play by David Elkind, which will be published by Da Capo Lifelong Books in January 2007.

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