All Work and No Play?

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All Work and No Play?

Whether it’s sports or the arts or a church group or homework help, organized activities and programs in out-of-school time play a valuable and a highly valued role in the lives of the nation’s youth. The vast majority of young people believe that kids are better off when their plates are full and they don’t have too much time to just hang out. What’s more, youngsters who participate in out-of-school activities give them high ratings for being fun and educational and being good places to make friends. Still, nearly 3 in 10 say they are home alone after school at least three days a week, while about 1 in 5complain their schedules are too hectic.

When the final bell rings and the school day is over, it’s no surprise that about 7 in 10 (69%) of today’s youngsters say they are ready to “come home, take it easy, do homework and spend time with friends.” An afternoon “just hanging out” still holds its time-honored adolescent appeal. But scratch beneath the surface, and there is strong, compelling evidence that organized, structured activities for youngsters—be they sports, clubs, music lessons, religious groups or volunteering—play a valuable and a highly valued role in students’ lives. This is one of the chief messages emerging from All Work and No Play?, a new in-depth survey examining how youngsters spend time when they are not in school.

A joint project of The Wallace Foundation and Public Agenda, All Work and No Play? Captures students’ and parents’ attitudes about what youngsters do after school, on weekends and in the summer. It is based on two separate national random sample surveys, one of 609 middle and high school students and another of 1,003 parents of school-age children, both conducted in June 2004. It also draws on the findings from 10 focus groups with students and parents conducted in communities across the country.

How Much Is Enough?

The surveys were conducted against a backdrop of controversy about the availability, cost, purpose and effectiveness of school-and center-based “after school” programs in communities nationwide. In recent years, there have been debates over federal spending designed to help less affluent districts increase after school programming. At the same time, some have charged that current programs leave too many slots unfilled. There have been disputes in local schools, with some now charging robust fees for children to play football or participate in other high-cost programs. Some observers worry that too many youngsters are overscheduled, with little time to play, rest, read, be with family or just daydream. Alternatively, some worry that too many youngsters are home alone, unsupervised, bored and easily attracted to less-than-wholesome pastimes. Finally, some believe the rationale for after-school programs, particularly those that use taxpayer dollars, should be opened up for debate. Should they serve a specific purpose, such as beefing up academic achievement or teaching a needed skill, or should they focus more on fun, something to give kids a needed break from traditional learning?

Time to Ask the Kids

In All Work and No Play?, we take a step back to look at the issue through a wide-angle lens. To our knowledge, this is one of the few studies to look broadly at the full range of activities and programs youngsters take part in during their out-of-school time—as opposed to research focusing solely on school-or center-based “after school programs.”* Other out-of-school-time endeavors include extracurricular activities at school, school and non-school sports, private or group lessons paid for by parents, church programs and volunteer programs, as well as conventional after-school programs. Most important, All Work and No Play? is one of the few studies to ask youngsters themselves about their experiences and opinions.

Note: Question wording in charts may be slightly edited for space. Full question wording is available in the Complete Survey Results at the end of this report. Percentages may not equal 100% due to rounding or the omission of some answer categories.

In this chapter, we report findings from the student survey, taking up parents’ views in later chapters. And the word from the kids is strong and clear. Despite the initial attraction of taking it easy after class, the vast majority of youngsters say that organized, structured out-of-school activities are enormously important to them. More than 8 in 10 (85%) students say that “kids who participate in organized activities such as a team or a club after school” are better off, compared with just 11%who believe that “kids who have a lot of time to themselves after school” are the ones who benefit most.

A Place to Meet a Friend

It’s not just that out-of-school activities are good for you. The vast majority of youngsters we surveyed report that these diverse activities play a crucial and positive role in their lives and that they enjoy and learn from them. More than 9 in 10 students, for example, say that belonging to a club or team gives them “a good feeling”—with 67% strongly agreeing with this statement. Ninety-two percent say they have made good friends through their participation in these kinds of activities.

Nearly all of the youngsters who took part in the survey say they have participated in at least some type of structured out-of-school activity during the course of a school year. Most took part in more than one—findings that run counter to the stereotype of disengaged teens routinely at loose ends. At least 6 in 10 youngsters say they participate in sports (66%)or in school clubs or other extracurricular activities (62%) or in volunteer work (60%). More than half participate in church-sponsored programs (54%), take lessons in things like music, dance or art (52%) or participate in an after-school program (52%). Somewhat smaller numbers say they get regular tutoring or academic preparation (30%), while 19% say they participate in “an organization like the Scouts.” Almost 4 in 10 high schoolers (37%) report having a part-time job.

Whatever their focus, structured out-of-school activities appear to offer—at least to the youngsters in them—the lure of being educational and entertaining at the same time. When describing the organized activity they participate in most, the overwhelming majority of students (86%) say they learn a lot. A similarly high number (85%) report that they usually have a lot of fun.

Good Marks for the Adults in Charge

What’s more, kids give their coaches, teachers, mentors and organizers very good reviews; nearly 8 in 10 (79%) say the adults in charge really care about the kids. Just 19% say that too many of these adults “act like it was just a job.” These ratings compare favorably with ratings that public high school students gave classroom teachers in a 2002 Public Agenda study for the Gates Foundation. In that survey, less than half said that all or most of their teachers “take a personal interest in students and really get to know them,” although they did give teachers much better marks for knowing their subject and treating students respectfully. 1

The majority of youngsters also give their peers reasonable marks. Nearly 6 in 10 (59%) say that most kids take the activities seriously and really pay attention; 35% say that there is “too much goofing off.”

Although we focus on parents’ views in detail in later findings, it is worth noting here that they too hold positive views about the adults who supervise their child’s programs and activities. Asked about their child’s most recent organized activity, more than 7 in 10 (71%) describe it as “of good quality and well run by adults who know what they’re doing”; 3% say it’s unorganized, and 25% say it’s somewhere in the middle.

Lacrosse and Debate

In focus groups conducted for this study, youngsters often described a mix of activities and outlined sometimes complicated schedules that combine school, homework, part-time jobs and their own mix of chosen activities. A girl from the Denver area ticked off her jam-packed but hardly a typical schedule: “I play softball and lacrosse at the school. We have practice every day after school for about two hours. During the winter, I am on the speech and debate team…. I am the editor for our school newspaper.” A youngster from Texas had a similar list: “It’s kind of busy with sports and school. I go to church, too, and we have all these activities going on. Sports really take up a lot of time.... I just got done with basketball…. I’m in track, and I’m a cheerleader.”

Ramping Up Learning?

With today’s emphasis on raising standards and reducing dropout rates, some educators, policy makers and parents want to use more out-of-school time to ramp up learning, either for youngsters in danger of failing or for those who want to get an edge on college admissions. The benefits of these academic pursuits might seem obvious to adults (a question we look at in Finding 4), but it is hardly surprising that most kids don’t view them so favorably. More than 6 in 10 students (61%) agree that “when the school day is done, the last thing I want is to go to a place that has more academic work.” Given a choice among organized activities that emphasize sports, the arts or academics, just 9% of youngsters take the academic option; 54% choose sports, and arts advocates may be heartened to learn that a healthy 36% would choose something “like art, music or dance.”

Love of Learning Lives

Even so, a sizable 39% of youngsters reject the “last thing I want is more academics” formulation, and about 3 in 10 indicate they would very much like an after-school program that provides homework help (32%) or that focuses on academics (28%). In focus groups, some students talked enthusiastically about such offerings. One Denver middle schooler may not be typical, but he may well be headed for a bright future: “What I do, personally, is go to an after-school organization that is actually in the school building called the Math Counts. It is pretty fun, because it’s not your normal math class stuff. It is more advanced. When I was in elementary school, I hated math. It is only one plus one.… What’s the point about that?” In the focus groups, youngsters gave the thumbs-up to Spanish clubs, speech clubs, creative writing clubs and similar academically themed programs.

Pursuing a subject that interests you, however, may be different from having it imposed on you during your non-school hours, especially for youngsters who are struggling in regular classes. Nevertheless, more than half of the students surveyed acknowledge that they could use extra help in some subjects (55%) and express an interest in summer programs that would help kids keep up with schoolwork or prepare for the next grade (56%).

“It Does Get Very Stressful”

Well over half the students surveyed (57%) tell us that they participate in some kind of out-of-school activity or program every day or almost every day, and another 37% say they do so a couple of days a week. The overwhelming majority (79%) say they do things both on school days and on weekends. Three out of 4 (75%) judge their own schedule as being “just about right.” It’s clear that youngsters value their activities and even thrive from their participation in them. Still, more than 1 in 5students (22%) say their day-to-day schedule is “too hectic with too many things to do.” The “things to do”—based on this study—cover a wide range, including homework, paid work, helping with family child care and running errands and chores, along with classic out-of-school options such as sports, clubs, the arts and religious or volunteer activities. Only 3% of young people say they have “too much free time” in a typical school day.

In nearly every focus group, there were one or two youngsters who appeared to be substantially overbooked. In Arizona, one young man talked openly about the strain his various commitments placed on him: “Academics is a big thing because I’m a senior, and so there’s a lot of things that have to be done as far as that goes. It’s not the only thing…. I’m in some other honor societies at the high school. I did Student Council last year, but not this year. Just a few other things—I do tutoring. I’m a very busy person…. It does get very stressful because of the amount of things I have to do every day and remember…it’s a lot. For me, being a teenager right now is pretty stressful.”

Another youngster described a demanding schedule for sports: “During tennis season, it is every day. A school sport pretty much is every day. Hockey, sometimes you have to wakeup in the morning at like 5:30. That is what time we practice. Now after school, I have been going to 24 Hour Fitness a lot and working out.”

Home Alone

Although most kids believe their own schedule is “just about right,” many adults may not be comforted by the considerable number of youngsters reporting that they spend several afternoons a week at home without an adult present. A recent study of eighth graders from a range of economic and ethnic backgrounds showed that children who care for themselves for11 or more hours per week were twice as likely to consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes and use marijuana as children who were supervised.2

In All Work and No Play?, almost 3 in 10 students tell us they are home alone—that is, sans an adult—for some time after school at least three days in a typical school week, including 16% who are home by themselves three to four days a week and 13% who are home alone five days. According to students, the prevalence of being at home without adult supervision is even higher during the summer months: at the time of the survey, a full 36% of students expected to “be home alone during the day” at least three days in a typical week during the summer.


Later in this report, we talk about the special problems low-income and minority families face finding suitable out-of-school activities for their kids, particularly those in less-than-affluent neighborhoods. But although poorer families face special challenges, the youngsters reporting that they are frequently home by themselves on school days come from all demo graphic groups. There are marginal differences between students who are low-income and those who are better off (22% vs. 31%), those who are of African American or Hispanic background and those who are white (23% vs. 30%), those who are living in the suburbs and those in cities or rural communities (32% vs. 24% vs. 24%).

Parents’ Comfort Level

Most parents, for their part, say that leaving their child home alone for a few hours after school is either something they would never do (38%) or something they’re reluctant to do unless there’s no choice (16%). A mother from Connecticut described her feelings about her 10-year-old daughter: “My daughter is definitely not old enough—mature enough—to stay on her own. I was probably her age when I used to come home from school, take the bus home, and there was nobody there. I’d be home by myself until my mother got home from work. I look at my daughter, and I say, ‘Nuh-uh. No way.’” Still, almost half the parents surveyed (45%) say that being home alone after school is something their child can handle. As one might expect, as children get older, parents’ comfort level increases. The overwhelming majority of high school parents (81%) have no problem leaving their teenager home alone for a few hours after school, compared with 47% of parents of middle schoolers and just 8% of parents of elementary school children.

Time to Nag a Little?

Based on Public Agenda’s earlier work for the Gates Foundation, fewer than 1 in 10 high school students complain that “there are hardly any after-school activities and clubs” available to them, with 90% saying this is not a serious problem where they go to school.3 And in All Work and No Play?, 65% of youngsters say the choice about whether or not to participate (and which activity to choose) is mainly their own. Parents may offer advice and encouragement, the findings suggest, but relatively few seem to force their child to take part in organized activities.

But All Work and No Play? also suggests that parents who have encountered disinterest or resistance when they suggest activities to their youngster might be well advised to give it a second try. A whopping 89% of the youngsters we interviewed told us that “even though I might complain about it, some-times I need to be pushed by my parents to do things that are good for me”— with 62% strongly agreeing.

*In this report, we often use the terms “after school” and “out of school” activities and programs interchangeably. Unless otherwise specified, we are talking about the full range of things that youngsters take part in during the hours they are not in school.

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