Dec. 5, 2001 -- How your children spend spare time can make a real difference to their academic, emotional, and behavioral development. Researchers have found that kids who spend the bulk of their free time participating in supervised, structured sports and hobbies are more likely to be well-adjusted teens a few years down the road.
"Free time spent with parents and nonparental adults was related to positive adjustment, whereas time spent alone and in unsupervised peer contexts predicted adjustment problems," says study leader Susan M. McHale, PhD, of Penn State University, in a news release.
In the government-funded study, McHale's team interviewed nearly 200 white, middle- and working-class fourth and fifth graders and their parents. They asked about each child's leisure-time activities (hobbies and sports, toys and games, playing outdoors, reading, watching TV, and just hanging out), school grades, depression or other emotional problems, and conduct -- first when the kids were 10 years old, and again when they were 12.
They found that children who spent most of their free time doing hobbies were less likely than others to be depressed at age 10, while those who participated in sports were less likely than others to be depressed at age 12.
Both 10- and 12-year-olds who spent most of their free time hanging out with friends or playing outside were most likely to have poor grades and conduct problems. In contrast, kids who spent a lot of time reading tended to get good grades, but they also reported the most symptoms of depression.
But couldn't it simply be that sad or poorly-adjusted kids are more likely to spend time alone, while happier, better-adjusted kids are more likely to spend time engaged in sports and other structured, social activities? Not necessarily. McHale says her team found that it was easier to predict how well a youngster was adjusting to life in general by looking at the activities he or she liked to do -- compared with trying to predict preferred activities by looking at how well-adjusted he or she seems to be. "But patterns varied depending on the activity and adjustment measure being examined," she says.
The researchers conclude that "structured activities such as hobbies and sports are the most development-enhancing ways for children to spend their time."