Children today have less freedom than children in previous generations. For instance, Clements and Louv say children spend less time playing in natural environments compared to past generations. Instead, their daily schedules are often filled with adult-structured, adult-supervised activities, and they are often overscheduled, which can have serious negative effects.
Benefits of Structured Activities
There are some benefits to structured activities. Mahoney and Vest note that structured activities, such as after-school extracurricular activities or programs, can be developmentally beneficial for adolescents’ physical, emotional, social, and cognitive functions. Organized activities are also connected with lower behavior problems and higher levels of positive adaptability, according to Mahoney, Parente, and Zigler. Studies have also shown that after-school can provide meaningful self-improvement opportunities for students.
Mental Effects of Structured Activities
Unfortunately, excessive participation in organized activities can have negative effects on children both mentally and physically. According to Melman, Little, and Akin-Little, overscheduling for students has resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of free time that youth and children have for leisure time and play, which has both mental and physical effects. Brenner points out that pressure from parents for students to excel in these activities can negatively impact family relations and other activities such as schoolwork. Rosenfeld and Wise say that the pressure and mental distress caused by structured activities can sometimes result in substance abuse. In addition, research by Salmela-Aro, Savolainen, and Holopainen has found that children who are overscheduled are also prone to drop out of school and have other negative mental and social outcomes such as school burnout and lowered well-being and engagement.
Physical Effects of Structured Activities
When children and youth take part in a significant number of adult-led obligations, it also affects their bodies physically, as the National Sleep Foundation says that their sleep patterns change and the amount of sleep they get lessens. This can lead to children arriving late for school, falling asleep during school, and having a variety of negatives effects such as memory lapses, shorter attention spans, feelings of depression, delayed reaction times, and lower grades. Dahl found that reduced sleep time can also lead to emotional and behavioral difficulties.
These mental and physical effects of overscheduling are causing increasing concern from families and educators. As Gilbert puts it, we are pondering how many structured activities are enough, how many are too much, how much time should be committed to these activities, and whether the expectations and pressures from teachers, coaches, parents, and themselves to succeed in each activity are becoming unhealthy. There needs to be a balance between structured and unstructured time, and although the balance is slightly different for each child, many children are overscheduled and have too many structured activities.
It’s easy to feel helpless when faced with an issue like this where the primary decisions are with the parents rather than in the school. Luckily, there are ways that we can help encourage a better balance for our students, which we will cover in the second article of this series.