Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How American Children Spend Their Time

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How American Children Spend Their Time

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to examine how American children under age 13 spend their time, sources of variation in time use, and associations with achievement and behavior. Data come from the 1997 Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The results suggest that parents' characteristics and decisions regarding marriage, family size, and employment affect the time children spend in educational, structured, and family activities, which may affect their school achievement. Learning activities such as reading for pleasure are associated with higher achievement, as is structured time spent playing sports and in social activities. Family time spent at meals and time spent sleeping are linked to fewer behavior problems, as measured by the child's score on the Behavior Problems Index. The results support common language and myth about the optimal use of time for child development.

Key Words: achievement, behavior problems, children, time use.

We often assume that how children spend their time affects their cognitive and social development. Much of our language refers to children's behavior in terms of time-whether they spend too little time studying, reading, or helping around the house or too much time watching television and hanging out with friends. Despite the use of language in which time is the accepted cultural medium for communicating about children's activities and behavior, however, time is rarely studied. This article takes advantage of national data collected in 1997 to describe how younger and older children under age 13 spend their time, what factors are associated with these time expenditures, and whether variations in time use are associated with children's achievement and behavior.


The development of a child from infancy to adulthood requires substantial parental and community investments of time, money, and psychosocial or emotional capital (Haveman & Wolfe, 1994). Besides providing opportunities for engagement with others, activities provide contexts for learning (Larson & Verma, 1999). Each context engages participants in a set of behaviors and rules and results in learning skills and a body of knowledge. Much research focuses on the acquisition of literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. In addition to cognitive skills, activities such as play and conversation provide opportunities for developing social and emotional skills. The quantity of time serves as an estimate of exposure to different social experiences, with more time leading to greater absorption of the skills and knowledge of that context. Although we may know the demographic and economic characteristics of children's families and the communities where they live and attend school, we rarely know how individual children spend their time (Larson & Verma). Thus, children's own investments and exposure and their links to achievement and emotional growth are unknown.

In this article, we address four key areas of children's activities: (a) school and day-care time, (b) discretionary time in free play versus organized activities, (c) time in outside-of-school learning activities, and (d) time spent in family activities.

Time Spent in School Settings

One of the critical concerns of parents is optimizing children's learning in formal settings. Educational research has focused on such factors as expenditures per capita, class size, and teacher qualifications (Hanushek, 1989), but less attention has been paid to how the amount of time children spend in school may be related to achievement on standardized tests. American children spend much less time in school and studying than do Chinese and Japanese children (Fuligni & Stevenson, 1995; Juster & Stafford, 1991). It is hypothesized that this difference may account for the substantial differences in achievement between children in both countries. Yet time in school-based settings has increased over the past several decades in the United States (Hofferth, 1996). …

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