All Work and No Play?

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All Work and No Play?

Reading through All Work and No Play?, I couldn't help but think about my own experiences as a parent and even as a teenager—both about how much things have changed, and really, how things have remained the same. Who couldn't identify with the parent who said in one of our focus groups, “We both have to work, so I just kind of tried to look for something where he could have a little fun, and I could have the peace of mind that he’s taken care of,” or with young people who say that, complaints aside, they need to be pushed a little by their parents to do things that are good for them?

I also thought about all the unstructured time I had when I was a kid. I might have put some of it to better use, but I also did not find danger at every corner. I then recalled the multitude of scheduled activities that my own child had access to that didn’t protect him from experiencing some of the difficult pitfalls young people face these days.

So what does All Work and No Play? tell us about what parents want for our children in the non-school hours? Are the needs of families actually being met with existing offerings?

Too often in policy debates we rely on “experts” to tell us what the major issues are that we should be focusing on. In recent years, so much of the discussion on “after school programs” has been dominated by calls for increasing the number of slots in structured programs on one side and demands for demonstrable academic improvements resulting from after-school programs on the other.

All Work and No Play? takes a step away from the referee huddle of experts and asks kids and parents—the players and the coaches, as it were—to assess the action on the field. Looking broadly at the full range of activities and programs youngsters take part in during their out-of-school time instead of just school- or center-based “after school programs,” we’ve allowed parents and kids to go beyond restating the current score and to think about the prospects for the longer season.

What Parents and Kids Want

Experts will debate what is best for kids in out-of-school hours, but ultimately it is the parents and kids themselves who make choices about how that time will be spent. After all, these are voluntary activities. Parents and kids are the “selective consumers” of these activities. So policy makers and providers really have to listen to what they are saying in order to successfully entice these “consumers.”

Families make out-of-school-time choices based on a variety of priorities, interests, limitations and needs—and while educational support is in the mix, it is at the top of the list for relatively few. There are many parents—and even kids—who really do want more of an academic focus in the out-of-school hours—this is especially true among low-income and minority families. And we should consider if we are doing enough to provide for those urgent needs. But when the majority of both parents and youth point to things other than academics for filling the bulk of kids’ out-of-school hours, we should listen to those voices.

Families tell us they want programs that provide opportunities for youth to develop new interests and hobbies, friendships, safety and just plain fun. For advocates and operators of after-school programs, it is good to know that nearly 8 in 10 kids say that the adults in charge of their activities really care about kids and 7 in 10 parents say their child’s activities are “of good quality and well run by adults who know what they’re doing.”

Some parents and kids do want supplemental academic activities and programs, and perhaps these should be evaluated by their impact on learning. But most parents and kids value and choose non-academic out-of-school activities. The policy-making community should therefore understand the value of those types of programs and begin to better assess their place in family life.

Of course, parents’ and children’s general satisfaction with what is available to them in the out-of-school hours documented in this research should not overshadow some of the stark revelations contained in this report. All Work and No Play? Raises serious concerns about the disparities in experiences and perceptions across economic and racial lines. It also presents some eye-opening truths about how kids are really spending their leisure time versus what they tell their parents.

Not Everyone Is Happy

Policy experts will surely view this research and feel a greater urgency to address the out of-school concerns of the “have-nots” in our nation. On quality, affordability and availability of activities, low-income and minority parents are more likely to be encountering problems— and keeping their youngsters busy during the summer is especially tough for these families. The disparity in opportunities for young people is pretty clear when low-income parents are twice as likely as those with higher income to say they would want to change things if they could, while two-thirds of higher-income parents would basically stick with things the way they are now.

A special word about the “long, lazy days of summer” is in order. For too long, this period of out-of-school time has been accepted as a fact of life for kids and families. Yet the voices of parents and kids on this subject suggest a major lost opportunity. Many students, including those who may not want after-school academics during the school year, might welcome a chance in the summer to “get ready” for the next school year. As I noted above, it is a strongly held sentiment among lower-income families who really seem to patch it together during the summer months.

Locating Kids by Cell: Is Truth on the Line?

As an American concerned about opportunities for all kids, the disparity in perceptions of out-of-school program quality, affordability and availability certainly got my pulse racing. But as a parent, the research’s look at how kids spend their time versus what they tell their parents really made my heart jump.

I admit that I was surprised to hear that “the mall” has become so widely recognized by kids as being the “go to” place to hang out—and as being the site for illicit activities. The fact that a majority of kids say they sometimes hang out there when most parents say their own child does not is rather jarring. And that so many kids—about 1 in 3—admit that they lie about their location in cell phone calls to their parents and don’t answer the cell phone when their parents call is itself a major wake-up call.

Listening to Parents and Kids

All Work and No Play? is research that suggests a change in direction for our national conversation on out-of-school activities and programs. It is clear that structured, organized non-school activities are highly valued in the lives of our nation's young people. Families want a variety of activities that provide a child new interests—not just after-school tutoring. And so the way we understand, design and evaluate out of- school offerings needs to respond to those values.

Whether it is soccer, dance, Spanish club, Bible study, marching band or homework help, parents and kids across America say out-of-school activities and programs play a critical role in family life. For some, the options are plentiful. But for others, keeping kids productively engaged is a challenge. We have now heard from parents and kids about the priorities, interests, limitations and needs that inform their choices. The next big question after All Work and No Play? is: What can we do to give more families what they seek?

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