Study Tracks How Children Spend Their Time

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What children do with their time, and how parents spend it with them, has a significant effect on children's well-being, a new study says.

And while children are spending more hours in structured programs, it's still "quality time" with parents that really matters, according to Sandra L. Hofferth, the lead researcher for the study, which was released last week by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "That's good news for busy parents," Ms. Hofferth writes.

The report, "Healthy Environments, Healthy Children," looks at the daily schedules of children 12 and younger, as well as how their activities help or hinder their development.

For More Information

"Healthy Environments, Healthy Children" is available free from the Child Development Supplement, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Institute of Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248; (734) 763-5166.

The study follows one that was conducted in 1981 and provides comparisons--some striking--between the way children occupied themselves then and the activities that now dominate their days.

The 'Time Crunch'

Preschoolers have experienced some of the biggest changes. In 1981, 3- to 5-year-olds spent an average of 11 1/2 hours a week in school settings. In 1997, the number of hours had nearly doubled to 20. Ms. Hofferth attributes most of that jump to the increased percentage of working mothers with young children. But she added that some of the change is linked to the fact that society is placing more value on early-childhood education.

Children also spend an average of about 45 more minutes studying during the week. Reading time has increased by about 20 minutes, and time spent doing art activities has doubled from about 30 minutes to an hour. Children also now spend two more hours during the week playing sports.

In general, children are busier because many of their parents are busier--what Ms. Hofferth calls the "work-family time crunch."

As a result, children are spending less time playing and being outdoors.

Time away from home apparently has also limited the number of hours some children spend watching television. While television viewing has remained about the same for 3- to 8-year-olds, children ages 9 to 12 now watch about two fewer hours of television a week than they did in 1981.

But television still takes up far more time than any other out-of-school activity, aside from sleeping.

The findings, Ms. Hofferth said, provide a different picture from those in some previous studies about the amount of time children spend reading or being read to. For example, in the 1996 National Household Education Survey, 57 percent of parents said their young children were read to every day.

But according to Ms. Hofferth's research, it's more like 30 percent or less. "Kids are not reading at home very much," she said in an interview last week. "That is clearly the biggest thing for me."

To get the results, the researchers collected "time diaries" from the families of 3,586 children nationwide. For each of the children, who ranged in age from newborn to 12, minute-by-minute accounts were taken for a weekday and a weekend day.

Most of the survey responses came from the children's parents, but comments were also sought from teachers and other caregivers.

Called the Child Development Supplement, the survey is part of a larger research project at the Michigan institute in Ann Arbor called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has been gathering information on a group of families since 1968.

Achievement Affected

As the researchers expected, the number of hours spent on educational activities and watching television had an impact on the achievement of children in the study sample: More hours of reading translated into higher scores in both reading and mathematics; children who watched more hours of television had lower scores.

Relationships between children and their parents also influenced both academic performance and behavior.

Specifically, the researchers found that children whose parents expect them to graduate from college had math and verbal scores that were 6 to 9 points higher than those of children who were not expected to seek higher education.

The study also found that children who take part in activities in the home with their parents, such as preparing meals, washing dishes, and working on puzzles, were more likely to have higher math scores. That finding, the report says, suggests that such activities prepare children for problem-solving.

Parents can also help their children do well in school by avoiding transfers during the academic year. Changing schools more than once a year increased the chances that children would have problems in school.

Unanswered Questions

The report provides some good news and some bad news, said David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. The author of The Hurried Child, Mr. Elkind has warned parents and educators about overscheduling children and causing stress.

"The bad news is that children have lost more of their free time," he said. He added that while it's good that children are watching a little less television, he wonders whether they are now filling those hours by using computers and playing computer games.

Additional research is planned on how children are spending their time during school hours and in other organized settings.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Page 8

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Study Tracks How Children Spend Their Time
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