Pre-teens involved in hobbies and sports get better grades, are better behaved

November 19, 2001

The way a 10-year-old child spends his or her free time is closely related to how well-adjusted that child is now, and will be in two years, a recent study reveals.

Devoting more of that free time to structured and supervised activities - such as hobbies and sports - appears to enhance a child's academic, emotional and behavioral development at this age. Spending more time playing outdoors and hanging out, in contrast, appear to detract from development, the article says.

These findings, which appear in the December issue of Child Development, come from research conducted by Susan M. McHale, Ph.D., of Penn State, and her colleagues.

McHale notes that American children enjoy a tremendous amount of free time - up to 50 percent of their waking hours, by some estimates. Previous researchers have speculated that the way this time is spent could strongly influence a child's emotional, academic and behavioral development.

McHale's research indicates they were right, and suggests why. Her team monitored how 198 white, middle and working class children in the fourth and fifth grades, averaging 10 years of age, spent their free time. The researchers also examined three indicators of development - school grades, depression levels and parental reports of bad conduct - at the same time as they monitored free-time activities. They looked at the same developmental markers two years later.

On the positive side, the children who spent more time at hobbies were less likely to report symptoms of depression at age 10, while those more engaged in sports tended to report fewer symptoms of depression at age 12. On the negative side, the children who spent more time playing outdoors or hung out a lot were less likely to have good grades and more likely to show bad conduct at both ages.

Reading appears to be a double-edged sword: the 10-year-olds who read more tended to have better grades but also were more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Although the authors cannot explain exactly why some activities are closely linked to good adjustment and others are linked to adjustment problems, they do see some patterns. In general, McHale observes, "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." There also are indications, she notes, that "structured activities such as hobbies and sports are the most development-enhancing ways for children to spend their time."

The finding that activity choices and adjustment are related raises the question: Does a ten-year-old's choice of free-time activities affect how well-adjusted the child will become, or simply reflect the child's adjustment level? According to McHale, the relationship appears to go in both directions. "We found somewhat more evidence that adjustment predicts activities than the reverse, but patterns varied depending on the activity and adjustment measure being examined."
The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as part of the Middle Childhood Initiative.

Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at 734-998-7310.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, For information about the Center, call Ira Allen,, 202-387-2829.

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