A Nation of Overscheduled Kids? Maybe Not


Dec. 4, 2006 — -- On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Nicko Corriveau, 11, goes directly from school to two soccer practices. It is usually 7:30 p.m. before he begins the trek home.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's hockey. If transportation is smooth, he gets home at 9 o'clock and sits down for dinner at 9:30 p.m.

But his activities do not stop there. He also has drum lessons on Tuesdays. Nicko is a busy kid. He is constantly running from one item on his list of scheduled activities to the next. But is he doing too much?

A pair of studies are at odds on the question -- with one saying kids need more time to let their minds dream, and another saying a busy schedule can correspond with success.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which published one of the studies, warns that children today need more downtime, more time for free play.

"Everybody should understand that play is a very important part of childhood," says Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a member of the academy and co-writer of the group's report. "But there are so many forces in society right now that are wiggling away at play that we needed to take a stand and say, 'We need play to remain central to childhood.'"

He says that kids no longer play with blocks and dolls. They do not sit back and see the monsters and dragons in the clouds. Kids today have their schedules completely blocked, with little or no time for free play.

But a new study by the Society for Research in Child Development states otherwise, concluding organized activities are good for kids.

According to that study, busy kids -- those who are engaged in 20 hours or more of scheduled activities a week -- only make up between 2 to 6 percent of the entire population. What's more, they love what they are doing -- staying busy because they want to, not because their parents pressure them to, and not even because they think it will make their college application look better.

The study finds that kids engaged in organized activities perform better academically than their peers who do not. Busy kids are more likely to get straight As, graduate from high school, go to college, and less likely to use drugs. In short, contrary to popular belief, participation in organized activities is associated with positive outcomes.

But Ginsburg says that unstructured free time allows the child to reboot, and adds that play is essential to a child's development, according to Ginsberg.

"There's wide variety of evidence," he says, "that shows that play is essential to creative growth, to intellectual growth, to brain development, to social and emotional skills."

Following a long day of classes, Ginsburg says, kids need to do something completely different. This allows them to absorb information in a new way. Parents might see kids running around on the playground as a waste of time, but something important is happening during those moments: The child is learning and making decisions, he says.

Sonya and Arthur Penn agree with Ginsburg. They only have one structured activity for their kids -- chess club.

"I think free time and play time is very important, because I think they help expand their imagination and [that] helps them figure things out about the world around them," says Sonya Penn.

She gives her kids the option of playing basketball or softball, but leaves it up to the kids to decide. When she suggests trips, say to the zoo, she says that "a lot of times they'll turn me down because they are having fun building a pillow fort or spraying the hose in the backyard."

Sonya Penn is glad that her kids are not so busy.

"It gives us more time just to spend time together and be together as a family," she says, "and I think it helps them know who they are better."

But few parents are following in the Penn family's footsteps. In 1999, the National Survey of America's Families reported that "81 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds and 83 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds participated in one or more sports, lessons or clubs during the past year."

The new study released by the Society of Research in Child Development argues that organized activities are good for the kids.

The group went into schools and asked children to report their previous 24-hour day. This time-use diary provided a minute-by-minute account of what kids were doing, where they were, and who they were with.

"In general, American children are not overscheduled. Our research suggests that … on any given day, 50 percent of the American youth are engaged in no scheduled activities whatsoever," says Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the co-writers of the report. "The majority of time is spent on what we call personal time."

That personal time involves eating, sleeping and grooming. The next most common amount of time is time spent in school, followed by leisure-time activities -- television and hanging out.

Annalise Corriveau, 13, Nicko's sister, agrees that busy is better.

I think I'm much more efficient with my work, and I'm much more organized," she says.

When asked what she would do with her free time, she says, "I'd probably be kind of lazy, just sitting around doing nothing."

Both studies however, agree on one thing: Parents must listen to their children. Each child is different. Some might thrive on busy schedules. Others will not. And researchers say children should be taking part in activities that they want to do, not something parents are pushing them to do.

"It shouldn't be because mommy wants a soccer player … or mommy wants a basketball player," says Chris Corriveau, a pediatrician and a mom. "The kid should want to initiate the activity."

"You have to look for cues in your own child," she adds. "You have to look for cues of too much stress."

Some kids, like Nicko, 11, and Annalise Corriveau, 13, welcome a schedule-filled week, whereas Camden Penn, 8, does not.

"Having to go everywhere, 'garf' down food, go to someplace else, run all around town," he says, "I don't like stress."

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