During their many out-of-school hours, school-age children need supervised and structured settings for positive, healthy development. After-school programs and activities are important avenues of socialization contributing to the differences in experience associated with family income. How children spend their out-of-school time has important implications for development; leisure activities may provide opportunities for learning and developing competencies (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Larson & Verma, 1998; Weisner, 1987). Overall, current evidence suggests that "structured activities" (e.g., hobbies, lessons, sports) are "development-enhancing" ways for children to spend their time. Werner (1993) reports that such activities can help children to deal constructively with stressful family circumstances, including poverty and its sequelae.
A large literature shows that children and youth who participate in such structured activities as sports, lessons, clubs and youth groups have higher academic performance and are more socially competent than those who do not participate (Mahoney, Larson, & Eccles, 2005). For older children, such organized activities as sports, lessons, youth groups, and community and recreation centers provide supervision, structure, learning and practicing skills, as well as instruction. Formal after school arrangements that provide cognitive stimulation and positive adult interactions has been associated with higher academic achievement among low-income children (Pierce, Hamm, & Vandell, 1999; Posner & Vandell, 1994; 1999).
Once again, however, the direction of cause and effect is difficult to determine. Does participation lead to better developmental outcomes, or do more competent children and youth choose to engage in activities? In two studies of low-income youth, the causal direction question was partly addressed by either examining change over time (to control for individual and family characteristics) or by comparing siblings (to control for family characteristics). In both studies, children who participated in a range of structured activities, particularly organized sports, had better academic and social competencies than did those who did not participate (Morris & Kalil, in press; Ripke & Huston, in press).
By contrast, low-income children in first and third grade who spent more time on their own (i.e., in self-care) received lower academic grades as sixth graders in comparison to children who spent less time in self care (Pettit, Laird, Bates, & Dodge, 1997). Among slightly older children, time spent in unstructured and unsupervised activities (e.g., hanging out with friends) provides children and youth with opportunities to engage in delinquent or risk taking behaviors, particularly if they live in low-income families and dangerous neighborhoods (Osgood, Wilson, Bachman, O'Malley, & Johnston, 1996; Osgood et al., 1996; Pettit, Bates, Dodge, & Meece, 1999; Posner & Vandell, 1999). Even for children who are not from poverty families, time spent hanging out and playing outdoors is associated with lower school grades and more conduct problems (McHale, Crouter, & Tucker, 2001).
Despite the potential advantages of engaging in activities, children in low-income families get less experience in them than do more affluent children. For example, U.S. Census data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) shows that only 3% of children ages 6-14 living in poor families participated in organized sports; 26% of children in more affluent families participated in sports (Smith, 2002). In studies of time use, children from economically disadvantaged families read less, are less involved in sports, and watch more television (Larson & Verma, 1998; McHale et al., 2001; Medrich, Roizen, Rubin, & Buckley, 1982; Posner & Vandell, 1999; Timmer Eccles, & O'Brien, 1985). Children from more affluent families are more likely to be enrolled in lessons, organized sports, or clubs than are children from low-income families (Hofferth et al., 1991). Low-income parents rely more on community centers and such national youth-serving organizations as the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA as out-of-school arrangements (Halpern, 1999; Pettit et al., 1997). Higher-income parents also are more likely to avail themselves of school-based out-of-school programs or lessons for their children's out-of-school time (Halpern, 1999; Pettit et al., 1997).
The reasons for income differences in activities include both family and community resources. Many activities involve costs for uniforms, equipment, and transportation that may be barriers to a family with little money. Moreover, many low-income communities have fewer opportunities for team sports, lessons, and other activities. In addition, parents in low-income communities often keep their children at home because of concerns about danger and about exposure to deviant peers and adults. In our surveys of low-income parents, we asked whether they thought such activities were positive or negative influences on their children; parents' opinions ran the gamut from positive to negative (Huston et al., 2003).
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