Toronto Star

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Kids these days have no time for child's play

Children playing 25% less than in 1981, study finds

By Elaine Carey
Toronto Star Demographics Reporter

CHICAGO - Children are running out of time to play.

The number of hours that kids from 3 to 12 spend playing has dropped by more than 25 per cent in the past 16 years to 12 hours a week, according to a new study.

The University of Michigan study, released yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, is the first to measure what has happened to children's time since the majority of their mothers began going out to work.

It looked at time diaries kept by 2,200 children and their parents in 1981 and 1997 and found kids are spending over eight more hours a week in school, in before- and after-school programs and child care, than in the past.

They're also spending almost double the time in organized team sports, an average four hours and 20 minutes a week, although boys still participate twice as much as girls.

While they're watching less television, presumably because they're not home, the time children spend going to movies and spectator sports has increased fivefold to more than three hours a week, according to the study.

But some of the simpler things are dropping out of sight.

Time spent eating meals fell by an hour a week, as busy families deal with the time crunch.

And just sitting and talking to someone at home fell by 50 per cent to only half an hour a week.

Instead, kids are spending far more time getting ready to go to all those events and packing up their belongings, said sociologist Sandra Hoffert, the study's co-author.

``With two parents working and children in their own activities, even children need their own personal organizer,'' Hoffert said.

``Family life requires very tight scheduling.''

As well, kids spend almost 3 1/2 hours more a week on household chores, most of which turned out to be time spent with their parents on errands and shopping trips, she said in an interview.

``As families spend more time buying prepared food, kids are making a lot more trips to the store with their parents,'' she said.

The study raises a major concern about how much time kids have for free play - when they get to decide what they want to do, she said.

``Play is how children learn. We have to learn what we are good at and what we like to do.

``A child who is constantly structured might get to the point where he's not exploring and not knowing those things.''

Children may also be growing up not knowing how to use their time or to do things alone, she said.

``All of these are things you have to learn to be an adult. Passive entertainment, watching television or sitting in a movie is very structured. Again, you don't have to pick your event. Somebody is doing it for you.''

The drop-in mealtime is also a concern because that has been linked to behaviour problems in children, she said.

``Mealtime is an important time when children and parents find out what happened over the day,'' she said.

``While it's not the only time, since sitting and talking also declined dramatically, it may be a major concern.''

While the drop in television time by almost two hours a week is good, she said, the time children spend reading - only about one hour a week - hasn't changed in 16 years. Reading is associated with better success in school and later in life.

Study time increased by 50 per cent but the total hours spent on it are small, about two hours a week.

The study found no evidence that mothers are neglecting their children.

Mothers who work spend three hours less a week directly involved with their kids than those who stay home full-time.

The study now plans to look at school programs to see whether children are given a lot of choice in what they do, which is important, she said.

``At this point, this change in family life is all so new, we really don't know all the implications for the family,'' Hoffert said.

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