Experts Challenge Popular Belief That Today's Children are 'Over-Scheduled'

Armen Hareyan's picture

Child Development

Leading child development experts are challenging the popular notion that today's children are "over-scheduled" as a result of the hurried and stressful lives from participating in too many organized activities. In fact, an analysis of new data from a national study and a review of the scientific evidence by three scientific experts, as well as commentaries by three other top child development experts, concludes that children participate in organized activities because they enjoy them, they are exciting, they provide encouragement and support from friends and peers, they are challenging and they increase self worth.

The report also highlights that youth who participate in organized activities show healthier functioning than those who do not participate, in areas such as academic success, substance use, and the quality of relationships with their parents. "These are indicators of well being, and we should be concerned that many youth are not participating in organized activities," according to Dr. Joseph Mahoney of Yale University. Mahoney and his co-authors, Drs. Angel Harris of the University of Texas at Austin and Jacquelynne Eccles of the University of Michigan, published their findings in Social Policy Report, a peer-reviewed publication of the Society for Research in Child Development (SCRD).

Their paper concludes "organized activities do not dominate American young people's free time; many alternative free time activities, such as educational activities, playing games and watching television, consume as much or considerably more time. There is scant support for the over-scheduling hypothesis and considerable support for the positive youth development perspective."

Other experts, such as Drs. Suniya Luthar and Jodie Roth, both of Columbia University, and Dr. Reed Larson of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, writing in the same issue of SPR, also question the belief that over-scheduling is a problem.


"Perhaps more so than the children, it is the parents who are overextended, with ongoing conflicts regarding their life roles. On the one hand is the deep-seated desire to be the best possible parents for their children. On the other hand there can be powerful draws from work," according to Luthar, who looked at the evidence on over-scheduling among children of well-to-do families. Luthar acknowledges the need for more research on parenting and child development in high-income families, but concludes that the distress seen among rich kids is not mainly because of over-scheduling. "Extra-curricular activities are good for them as they are for most youth."

The paper by Roth looked at the evidence on patterns of participation in extra-curricular activities. The few studies that have looked at "duration" of extra-curricular activities find that elementary age kids who participate in an after-school program for two years do better academically than those who participate for just a year. The same can be said for kids in high school extracurricular activities. Roth also says that the costs of no participation in organized activities remain far more worrisome than the public's concern about over-scheduled youth.

The Larson paper also pointed out the need for more research, but pointed to findings suggesting that extra-curricular activities are a unique context for learning teamwork skills and abilities for managing emotions; they may also facilitate the development of "family autonomy," which he defines as being emotionally autonomous while staying connected with the family.

Other findings cited in these papers are:

  • Kids usually participate in organized activities not because they are under pressure from their parents, but mostly because they want to participate themselves.
  • On average, White and Black youth spent about 5 hours a week in organized activities, approximately the same amount of time they spent on out-of-school educational activities.
  • They spent less than 5 hours performing household chores and hanging out, but more time playing games and watching television.
  • The benefits of participation tend not to decline as participation goes up; by and large, even youth who spent 20 or more hours per week in organized activities show better adjustment compared to youth who do not participate at all.
  • Educational benefits of participating in sports seem to level off after two competitive team sports.
  • In at least one study, athletes report drinking more alcohol in high school than non-athletes, but not more drug use or smoking.