Subjects

The ways in which children spend their free time influence their development, learning, and well-being (Ginsberg, 2007). Playing sport, for example, has been shown to have benefits for children’s physical, psychological and social well-being (Eime, Young, Harvey, Charity and Payne, 2013), while frequent leisure reading is strongly associated with the academic achievement of children and adolescents (Kavanagh, Shiel and Gilleece, 2015; Perkins, Cosgrove, Moran and Shiel, 2012). Studies have consistently demonstrated associations between involvement in a range of structured out-of-school activities and student achievement (e.g. Cooper, Valentine, Nye and Lindsay, 1999; Eccles and Barber, 1999; McCoy, Quail and Smyth, 2012), and have indicated that such benefits may be particularly marked for young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds (Marsh and Kleitman, 2002). Perkins (2017) found that involvement in certain leisure activities (e.g. sports, cultural activities and leisure reading) predicted academic resilience in a sample of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in Ireland. In contrast, large amounts of television watching by children is associated with lower academic achievement and attainment (e.g. Hancox, Milne and Poulton, 2005), and television watching has been found to be negatively related to time spent interacting with family, doing homework, and engaging in creative play (Vandewater, Bickham and Lee, 2006).

Outdoor physical play is deemed important for children’s development due to its role in promoting independence and self-regulation, its positive effects on health, and its social benefits, such as improved communication and cooperation (Brockman, Jago and Fox, 2011; Whitebread, Basilio, Kvalja and Verma, 2012). Research indicates that children and young people value time to play and interact with one another in ways that are not directed or supervised by adults (Armitage, 2004; Brockman et al., 2011), although unsupervised time with peers has been shown in some studies to be predictive of problem behaviours in late childhood and adolescence (Pettit, Bates, Dodge and Meece, 1999;Lam, McHale and Crouter, 201).

There are indications that the ways that young people in developed countries use their free time are changing, with less engagement in unsupervised play, outdoor play, and ‘free’ play (Gray, 2011) and greater time spent on structured activities, television watching, and the playing of computer games (Clements, 2004; Hofferth and Sandberg, 2001). Among the explanations posited for this shift are: growing urbanisation (Whitebread et al., 2012), an increasingly risk-averse society (Clements, 2004; Gill, 2008), and what Mayall (2000) terms the ‘scholarisation of childhood’, whereby activities thought to boost academic achievement are prioritised (by adults) over other ways in which children can spend free time. Proponents of the ‘overscheduling hypothesis’ express concern that children are now involved in too many organised activities at the behest of their parents and argue that this is linked with poorer developmental and educational outcomes. Several studies, however, have failed to find support for this hypothesis (Mahoney and Vest, 2012), finding instead that greater participation in organised activities is associated with better outcomes. Some studies in the area have found evidence of a threshold effect, whereby after a certain level of involvement, the positive effects of extracurricular activity level off or decline slightly (Fredricks and Eccles, 2010).

Cultural attitudes transmitted to children, mainly through parental behaviour, influence the nature and extent of children’s play and leisure time activities, meaning that variation in free time use has been found along socioeconomic and gender lines (Whitebread et al., 2012). Research suggests that children of lower socioeconomic status, for example, engage in more unstructured activities, outdoor play, and television watching than their more advantaged counterparts, and engage less frequently in sports activities, indoor play and leisure reading (McHale et al., 2001). Studies conducted in the United States have indicated that boys play more sport and spend more time watching television than girls, who spend more times on hobbies, particularly those involving arts activities (e.g. McHale et al., 2001). 

In this paper, data collected as part of the evaluation of the School Support Programme (SSP) under DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) are used to explore whether patterns and trends in play and pastimes demonstrated in other contexts are also observable among children in Ireland attending urban primary schools serving large concentrations of pupils from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

DEIS and its Evaluation

DEIS was introduced in 2007 and is the current initiative of the Department of Education and Skills (DES) aimed at addressing educational disadvantage in Ireland. In 2005, the schools with the highest concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were identified for inclusion in the School Support Programme (SSP) under DEIS, which aims to bring together and build upon previous schemes aimed at addressing educational disadvantage. Since 2007, the Educational Research Centre has been conducting an independent evaluation of the SSP on behalf of the DES. The programme is multifaceted and its evaluation involves an array of activities in post-primary schools and in urban and rural primary schools. The focus of the present article is on urban primary schools.[1] Urban SSP primary schools are classified as belonging to one of two bands, Band 1 or Band 2, with Band 1 schools having the greatest assessed levels of disadvantage and consequently receiving more resources.

In 2007, and every three years since, large-scale data collection has been undertaken in a representative sample of urban DEIS primary schools[2] (originally 120 schools, now 118).[3] Tests of reading and mathematics achievement have been administered to pupils in target grades (Second, Third, Fifth [since 2010] and Sixth class) in order to monitor changes in achievement over time.[4]

Contextual information has been collected via questionnaires administered to pupils, parents and principals in conjunction with the achievement tests. The data presented below are derived from the pupil questionnaire, which, in addition to eliciting information on children’s attitudes towards school and learning, and their homework activities, seeks information about their use of free time.

Method

Participants

Although questionnaires have been administered at four grade levels, just one, Sixth class, has been selected as the focus here. Approximately 4,000 Sixth class pupils completed the questionnaire on each of four occasions, and the samples were evenly balanced with respect to gender (Table 1). Pupils are drawn from seventy Band 1 and forty-eight Band 2 schools.

Table 1 Information on samples of Sixth class pupils who completed questionnaires as part as the SSP evaluation, by year

Year

N

Mean age

% Girls

% Band 1

2007

3916

12.4

48.5

53.2

2010

3746

12.4

49.8

53.5

2013

4159

12.4

48.9

52.4

2016

4156

12.4

49.4

54.6

 

Procedure

Data were collected in May of 2007 2010, 2013 and 2016. Questionnaires were completed by pupils during class time and questionnaire items were read aloud to the class groups by their class teachers.

Analysis

The play and leisure time activities of Sixth class pupils in 2016 are described in the following section and are considered by gender. Trends since 2007 are also explored. All reported percentages are unweighted. Pearson chi square tests were used to determine whether there were significant associations between children’s engagement in various activities and a) year (looking only at 2007 and 2016) and b) gender. Effect sizes (Φ and Cramer’s V) are also reported.[5]

Findings

Children were asked to indicate the frequency with which they played sport outside of school. In 2007, sixty percent of Sixth class pupils indicated that they played sport every day or almost every day. This percentage decreased at each subsequent round of data collection. In 2016, forty-eight percent of Sixth class pupils indicated that they played sport outside of school every day or almost every day (Table 2). The association between year (2007, 2016) and frequency of playing sport was statistically significant, χ2(3)= 117.18, p < .001, V=0.12, and the effect size can be interpreted as small to medium (Cohen, 1988).

Table 2 Percentages of Sixth class pupils playing sport outside of school with varying degrees of frequency, by year

 

2007

2010

2013

2016

Every day or almost every day

59.8

56.4

50.2

48.3

Once or twice a week

27.2

30.0

32.5

32.2

Once or twice a month

6.2

6.8

7.9

9.0

Hardly ever or never

6.8

6.8

9.3

10.4

 

Gender differences in sport engagement were significant. In 2016, sixty-one percent of boys indicated that they played sport every day or almost every day, compared to twenty-five percent of girls. Girls were also twice as likely to indicate that they hardly ever or never played sport outside of school (fourteen and seven percent, respectively; Table 3). The association between gender and frequency of playing sport was statistically significant, and the effect can be described as medium χ2(3)= 284.91, p < .001, V= 0.20.

Table 3 Percentages of Sixth class pupils playing sport outside of school with varying degrees of frequency, by gender, 2016

 

Gender

 

Girls

Boys

Every day or almost every day

35.1

61.2

Once or twice a week

39.8

25.0

Once or twice a month

11.3

6.6

Hardly ever or never

13.7

7.2

 

Children were asked to indicate how often they spent time ‘hanging out’ with friends outside of school. In 2007, seventy-six percent of pupils indicated that they ‘hung out’ with friends every day or almost every day after school. This percentage decreased at each subsequent round of data collection; in 2016, fifty-nine percent of Sixth class pupils indicated they hung out with friends this frequently (Table 4). The association between year of testing and frequency of hanging out with friends was statistically significant and the effect size indicates a medium effect, χ2(3)= 260.10, p < .001, V =.18. There was no significant association between gender and frequency of hanging out with friends in 2016, χ2(3)= 7.67, p = .053.

Table 4 Percentages of pupils ‘hanging out’ with friends outside of school with varying degrees of frequency, by year

 

Sixth Class

 

2007

2010

2013

2016

Every day or almost every day

75.8

72.1

62.4

59.1

Once or twice a week

15.4

17.9

23.4

23.9

Once or twice a month

4.9

5.8

7.9

10.1

Hardly ever or never

3.8

4.2

6.3

6.9

 

Table 5 Percentages of pupils ‘hanging out’ with friends outside of school with varying degrees of frequency, by gender, 2016

 

Gender

 

Girls

Boys

Every day or almost every day

57.7

60.6

Once or twice a week

24.9

23.0

Once or twice a month

11.0

9.2

Hardly ever or never

6.4

7.2

 

Children were asked whether they were involved in each of a number of structured out-of-school activities. The most common type of involvement was with sports clubs, with over half of pupils indicating that they belonged to such a club on each occasion of data collection (Table 6). One in five Sixth class pupils participated in none of the listed activities.

Although there were statistically significant associations between year and rates of membership of all clubs other than youth clubs, effect sizes were negligible to small (Phi coefficients ranging from .02 to .16), indicating that there has not been much change in participation rates over time.

The proportion of pupils not engaged in any activity increased from seventeen percent in 2007 to twenty percent in 2016, with a similar decrease in the proportion engaged in four or more of the activities (from seven percent in 2007 to three percent in 2016). The association between number of activities engaged in and year was statistically significant, but the effect was small, χ2(4)= 36.33, p < .001, Φ =.07

For some of the activities (scouts/guides, homework club, youth club), gender differences in participation were not statistically significant (p= .17, .17, and .65, respectively). However, there was a significant association between gender and membership of a music group (band/choir or orchestra), χ2(1)= 121.93, p < .001, Φ =.17, with girls in the sample more likely to be involved in such a group (twenty-six percent of girls compared to twelve percent of boys; Table 7). Girls were also significantly more likely to be involved in a dance or drama group (thirty percent of girls, four percent of boys; χ2(1)= 491.68, p < .001), and the effect can be interpreted as medium in magnitude (Φ =.37). Girls were significantly less likely to be part of a sports club (forty-seven percent) than boys (sixty-seven percent), χ2(1)= 118.60, p < .001, Φ =.17.

 

Table 6      Percentages of pupils who are members of various clubs or groups, by year

 

2007

2010

2013

2016

Dance/drama goup

26.4

23.9

21.0

16.7

Band/choir/orchestra

21.1

24.0

24.3

18.8

Sports club

57.3

58.0

56.6

54.1

Scouts or guides

7.1

7.1

6.2

5.5

Youth club

28.2

31.2

33.1

27.7

Homework club

15.3

17.3

18.6

17.1

No activity

17.0

16.5

16.9

20.1

One activity

36.1

34.5

35.8

39.3

Two activities

26.2

27.6

28.9

27.0

Three activities

13.5

14.6

13.8

10.2

Four or more

7.1

6.9

4.7

3.4

 

Table 7      Percentages of pupils who are members of various clubs or groups, by gender, 2016

 

Gender

 

Girls

Boys

Dance/drama group

29.9

3.9

Band/choir/orchestra

25.6

12.1

Sports club

46.7

62.7

Scouts or guides

6.0

5.0

Youth club

28.1

27.4

Homework club

16.3

18.0

None

19.6

20.5

One activity

34.9

43.6

Two activities

28.3

25.8

Three activities

12.2

8.3

Four or more activities

5.1

1.7

 

There has been little change in the time spent watching television on school days since 2007. Each year, the most common response was that pupils spent 1-2 hours watching television on school days (35 to 38 percent; Table 8). Although the association between year and time spent watching television was statistically significant χ2(3)= 87. 50, p < .001, the effect was small (V=.10). In 2016, 14 percent of pupils indicated that they spent more than four hours each day watching television. Boys were slightly more likely than girls to spend this much time watching television (16 percent and twelve percent, respectively; Table 9); the association between gender and time spent watching television was statistically significant, χ2(3)= 18.75, p < .001, but the effect was negligible (V=.04). 

 

 

 

 

Table 8 Percentages of pupils spending different amounts of time watching television on school days, by year

 

2007

2010

2013

2016

More than 4 hrs

18.0

15.7

16.3

13.7

2-4 hours

28.9

26.3

27.6

24.8

1-2 hours

35.0

38.3

35.9

35.9

Up to an hour

18.1

19.7

20.2

25.6

 

Table 9 Percentages of pupils spending different amounts of time watching television on school days, by gender, 2016

 

Gender

 

Girls

Boys

More than 4 hrs

11.9

15.5

2-4 hours

27.0

22.8

1-2 hours

36.9

36.9

Up to an hour

24.8

24.8

 

Finally, pupils were asked to indicate the amount of time they spent playing computer games (Table 10). There was a significant association between year and time spent playing computer games χ2(3)= 194.51, p < .001, V=.16. A slightly higher proportion of pupils in 2016 spent more than four hours per day playing computer games (13%) than did so in 2007 (10%).

Gender differences in computer game engagement were evident in 2016. Just over one fifth of Sixth class boys indicated that they spent more than four hours each school day playing computer games, compared to four percent of girls. Sixty-four percent of girls indicated that they spent no time playing computer games, compared to eighteen percent of boys (Table 11). The association between gender and time spent playing computer games was statistically significant, χ2(3)= 910.48, p < .001 and the effect size can be interpreted as large (V=.42).

Table 10 Percentages of pupils spending different amounts of time playing computer games on school days, by year

 

 

2007

2010

2013

2016

More than 4 hrs

9.5

11.3

13.9

12.6

2-4 hours

14.4

16.4

17.8

13.4

1-2 hours

26.3

26.7

24.9

14.4

Up to 1 hour

49.8

45.6

43.4

59.5

 

Table 11 Percentages of pupils spending different amounts of time playing computer games on school days, by gender, 2016

 

Gender

 

Girls

Boys

More than 4 hrs

4.1

20.8

2-4 hours

5.1

21.5

1-2 hours

8.1

20.7

Up to 1 hour

18.3

18.8

No time

64.4

18.3

 

Conclusion

The present study offers evidence that engagement in some unstructured activity (hanging out with friends) and physical activity (playing sport) has declined among Sixth class pupils in urban DEIS primary schools since 2007. However, it does not appear that this has occurred due to equivalent increases in time spent watching television or increased involvement in structured out-of-school activities. There has been a small increase in the proportion of pupils playing computer games for long periods of time and it is possible that there has been an increase in other forms of screen time; this will be considered in a further evaluation report (Kavanagh and Weir, forthcoming). The forthcoming report will also explore associations between leisure activities and achievement in reading and mathematics and will allow comparison of free time use across different grade levels.

Gender differences found in the present study are generally in line with those observed in other contexts (e.g. McHale, 2001), with girls reporting higher participation in arts activities and boys participating more in sports. Given the documented benefits of each, encouraging increased participation of girls in sport and of boys in arts activities seems warranted. It does not appear from the present findings that Sixth class pupils in urban DEIS schools are overscheduled. Rather, one in five children is involved in no organised out-of-school activity. The students in the sample are drawn from schools serving concentrations of disadvantaged families. Data from periodic national assessments of achievement could be used to explore whether similar patterns of free-time use are observed in a nationally representative sample.

Promoting involvement in structured out-of-school activities may serve to support children’s learning (Cooper et al., 1999; Kavanagh and Weir, forthcoming; McCoy et al., 2012). However, it seems clear from the literature that balance is important, and that children’s leisure time should not be organised solely based on adult priorities (Ginsberg, 2007). To this end, further research into which free time and play activities are most enjoyed and valued by children in Ireland would be of merit.

References

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Brockman, R., Jago, R. and Fox, K.R. (2011) Children's Active Play: Self-Reported Motivators, Barriers and Facilitators. BMC Public Health, Vol. 11, pp.461-467.

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Fredricks, J.A. and Eccles, J.S. (2010) Breadth of Extracurricular Participation and Adolescent Adjustment among African‐American and European‐American Youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, Vol. 20(2), pp.307-333.

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Kavanagh, L., Weir, S. and Moran, E., (2017) The Evaluation of DEIS: Monitoring Achievement and Attitudes among Urban Primary School pupils from 2007 to 2016. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

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Author information

Dr Lauren Kavanagh is a Research Associate at the Educational Research Centre (ERC) in Drumcondra. She works on the Centre’s evaluation of the School Support Programme under DEIS. She has a BA and PhD in Psychology, both from University College Dublin. Her research interests lie primarily in the areas of home-school relations and educational disadvantage.

Dr Susan Weir is a Research Fellow at the ERC. She has a BA (Mod) and PhD in Psychology from Trinity College Dublin. Her work is mainly focused on educational disadvantage, ‎and encompasses the assessment of levels of disadvantage in schools, as well as conducting evaluations of programmes aimed at addressing ‎educational disadvantage.  Currently she is the principal investigator on the evaluation of ‎‎the SSP under DEIS on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills.

[1] Interested readers are pointed to reports on evaluation activities in rural primary schools (Weir, Archer and Millar, 2009; Weir and McAvinue, 2013) and post-primary schools (McAvinue and Weir, 2015; Weir, McAvinue, Moran and O’Flaherty, 2014).

[2] For more information on the sampling procedure, see Weir and Archer (2011).

[3]Attrition in the sample of schools is attributable to school amalgamations.

[4] See Kavanagh, Weir and Moran (2017) for a summary of trends in achievement in urban DEIS primary schools from 2007 to 2016.

 

[5] Phi (Φ) coefficients are reported where both variables in the analysis are dichotomous, and Cramer’s V is reported where at least one variable has more than two levels. Using Cohen’s (1988) guidelines, a Φ value of 0.1 is interpreted as a small effect, 0.3 as medium, and 0.5 as large. For all Cramer’s V values reported here, .06 is interpreted as a small effect, .17 as medium and .29 as large (Cohen, 1988).