Survey: Sports, Arts, Clubs, Volunteering – Out-of-School Activities Play Crucial, Positive Role for Kids

November 16, 2004

Survey: Sports, Arts, Clubs, Volunteering – Out-of-School Activities Play Crucial, Positive Role for Kids


But new research points to differences between policy makers’ focus on programs’ educational value and what most families are really seeking;
Low-income and minority families much less satisfied with their children’s options

When the school bell rings, do America’s middle and high school students turn into slackers and couch potatoes?  Not according to a new national survey which found that 79% of America’s middle and high school students regularly participate in activities both after school and on weekends and 57% have some kind of non-school activity nearly every day.  The vast majority of the students surveyed by the nonpartisan opinion research organization Public Agenda indicate that activities ranging from sports to art and music to church programs “play a crucial and positive role in their lives.” 

But Public Agenda found stark differences in the experiences of low-income and minority parents, who are much more likely than higher-income and white parents to say they have trouble finding high-quality, convenient and affordable activities for their children.

American young people believe that “organized, structured out-of-school activities are enormously important to them,” with 85% saying that kids who participate in such activities are “better off” than those who don’t.  They are also aware that sometimes they might need a parental push, with almost 9 out of 10 saying that even though they complain, sometimes they “need to be pushed by my parents to do things that are good for me.”

Interestingly, while much of the policy debate on after school programs revolves around whether these programs improve academic achievement, for most families, academics aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.  Parents want activities that foster interests, values and growth, with relatively few parents (15%) or kids (12%) saying that academic achievement is the best reason for kids to be involved in organized activities. The exception are low-income and minority parents, who, on a variety of measures,  are considerably more likely to want activities that emphasize academic learning.

The study, All Work and No Play? Listening to What Kids and Parents Really Want from Out-of-School Time, was commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

Time to Listen to Parents and Kids

According to Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden,  “Too often in policy debates we rely solely on ‘experts’ to tell us how we should think about an issue.  But Wallace and Public Agenda thought it was time to hear from  kids and their parents. There are plenty of important insights in this research, but one of the most important is directed at parents themselves:  most kids are thriving from out-of-school activities and it’s really worth your time - and maybe a little nagging -  to get kids involved.”

According to Wallace Foundation President, M. Christine DeVita, “At a time when the policy debate about out-of-school learning has been polarized between those saying academics should come first, and those who urge enrichment, the report suggests that both parents and their children want meaningful, challenging activities that, in the long run, help kids become informed, satisfied and productive citizens.

“If there’s a single most important finding in this valuable report, it’s that we need to listen more closely to these different voices as we continue to debate the future of after-school programs and where and how to invest scarce public and private resources. What they’re telling us, loud and clear, is that one size doesn’t fit all.”

Raising Academic Standards – Whose Goal?

Policy makers are struggling with the issue of using taxpayer dollars to fund after-school programs when recent research has indicated that these programs may not improve academic achievement.  One key finding of the Public Agenda's study is that relatively few parents really look to out-of-school activities for this purpose.  Only 15% of parents said the best reason to get kids involved in an activity is “to improve how well they do in school.”  Instead, 41% of parents pointed to developing interests and hobbies and 27% said the best reason is to keep kids busy and out of trouble. 16% percent say the best reason is for kids to have fun.

Most parents also want programs that reinforce good values and behavior. Asked which three types of programs would be the best match for their child, almost half (48%) picked “teaching the value of hard work and commitment,” 33% chose a focus on “helping other people” and 17% a program that reinforces religious faith. 

Most Kids Choose Sports or Arts

Given a choice of activities, 54% of young people would choose sports and 36% would choose an activity such as music or dance.  Still, about 3 in 10 students say they would very much like an after school program that provides homework help (32%) or focuses mainly on academics (28%).

But by significant margins, low-income (less than $25K per year) and minority (African American and Hispanic) parents are more likely than higher income ($50K+) and white families to want after school activities that emphasize academic learning. Low-income and minority parents are more likely to say:

  • Since schools are putting so much emphasis on academic standards, kids are better off in programs that focus on academics rather than other things. (low vs. higher-income 45% vs. 35%; minority vs. white 55% vs. 33%)
  • An after-school program that provides supervised homework time is something they would go out of their way to find.  (low vs. higher-income: 52% vs. 28%; minority vs. white 56% vs. 27%)

Students in low-income and minority families are also more likely to say:

  • The best reason for kids to be involved in organized activities is to improve how well they do in school. (low vs. higher-income 20% vs. 9%; minority vs. white 23% vs. 8%
  • They would very much like an after-school program that focuses mainly on academic preparation. (low vs. higher-income 39% vs. 24%; minority vs. white 45% vs. 23%)

Low-Income and Minority Families More Likely to Worry

Overall, more that 7 in 10 parents (71%) describe their child’s most recent organized activity as high quality and run by adults who know what they are doing.  Kids, too, give their program organizers, coaches and mentors very good reviews, with 79% saying the adults in charge really care about the kids.

But for low-income parents, just making sure their child is productively occupied during out-of-school hours is a big worry.  Just 37% say they have this under control, compared with 60% of higher-income parents.

Low-income parents are also considerably less likely than higher-income parents to say it’s easy to find things that are:

Low-Income  Higher-Income Minority   White
Affordable 30% 65% 39% 62%
Run by trustworthy adults 45% 72%  45% 73%
Conveniently located  45%  72% 44%  71%
High quality 45% 66% 37% 66%
Interesting to their child  49% 74%  53% 71%
Major Hassles for All Families – Activities for Teens; Summer

Both  parents (70%) and teens (72) say their communities could realistically do more when it comes to having enough things for teens to do.

Finding ways to keep kids busy in the summer is especially vexing.  58% of parents say summer is the hardest time to make sure their child has things to do – the next closest is 14% for after-school hours and 13% for the weekend.  Compared with higher-income and white parents, low-income and minority parents are more likely to say their kids don’t really have good options in summer. (low vs. higher-income 63% vs. 43%; minority vs. white 62% vs. 44%)

Both kids and parents alike feel that summer can drain the brain.  38% of parents are concerned that kids can fall behind academically in summer and a substantial number of students (56%) are interested in summer programs that help them keep up with school work.

Some Still Home Alone

While most kids appear to be productively and enjoyably occupied after school, the survey also found that almost 3 in 10 say they are home alone after school at least 3 days a week.  Moreover, more than three quarters (77%) of youngsters believe that a lot of  kids get in trouble when they are bored and have nothing to do.

Most young people (71%) believe it is lack of motivation - not lack of alternatives -  that leads kids to skip out on organized activities.  However only 27% think their community is doing as much as it could when it comes to having enough things for kids their age.

More than 6 in 10 parents (62%) find it reassuring that their children have cell phones, believing that they can reach them and know where they are. But almost 1 in 3 youngsters (32%) said they used the cells to tell their parents they were in one place when they were really at another. The same number (32%) said there are times when they just don’t answer when they know their parents are calling.

What American Middle and High  School Students Do After School and on  Weekends

66% say they participate in sports activities
62% are in school clubs or extracurricular activities
60% do volunteer work
54% attend religious instruction or a church youth group
52% take lessons in things like music, dance or art
52% are in an after-school program at school or another locale
37% of high-school students have a part-time job
30% get regular tutoring or extra academic or test preparation
19% belong to an organization like the Scouts

 Students give great marks to the after-school or weekend activity that they spend the most time doing

92% say they made good friends there
86% say they learned a lot
85% say they usually have a lot of fun
79% say the adults in charge really cared about the kids
79% say it was easy and convenient to get to
59% say the other kids took it seriously and really paid attention


The findings in All Work and No Play? Listening to What Kids and Parents Really Want from Out-of-School Time are based on two national random sample telephone surveys conducted in June 2004; one with 609 6th through 12th grade students and one with 1,003 parents of K-12th grade students.  The surveys were preceded by ten focus groups. The margin of error is +/- four percentage points for students and +/- three percentage points for parents.

Full copies of this and other Public Agenda research studies are available free of charge in PDF format at You can order a printed version for $10, plus $3 shipping and handling, by calling Public Agenda at (212) 686-6610. Quantity discounts are available.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public’s voice into crucial policy debates.  Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public’s views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national private foundation established by DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, the founders of The Reader’s Digest Association.  The Wallace Foundation’s mission is to enable institutions to expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. It does this by supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices.  To achieve this mission, The Wallace Foundation has three objectives: strengthen education leadership to improve student achievement; improve out-of-school learning opportunities; and expand participation in arts and culture. For additional information and research on education leadership, visit

Visit Public Agenda Online -   Public Agenda Online has been named one of Library Journal’s Best Reference Sources and is a USAToday, MSNBC and recommended site.  Public Agenda Online is the go-to source for unbiased facts, figures and analysis on issues ranging from education to terrorism to abortion to illegal drugs.

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Claudia Feurey    
Michael Hamill Remaley   
Public Agenda    
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Mary Trudel
The Wallace Foundation
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