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April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Life After School

From reading at home to playing sports at school, students' after-school lives vary according to such factors as gender, age, and parents' education levels.

How students spend their nonschool hours is important to their social development and academic achievement. Today, about 30 percent of a student's week is discretionary or free time (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001b). What students do during that time—whether they play, read, watch television, play video games, or hang out with friends—will affect their long-term achievement and social adjustment (Eccles & Barber, 1999).
  • Where do students go after school?
  • What do students do?
  • Whom do students spend time with?
  • How does location affect disadvantaged students' involvement in activities?
Although many researchers have studied students' use of time (Asmussen & Larson, 1991; Bianchi & Robinson, 1997; Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001a; Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001b; Timmer, Eccles, & O'Brien, 1985), few studies have focused on what students do after school (Eccles & Barber, 1999; Medrich, Roizen, Rubin, & Buckley, 1982; Miller, O'Connor, Sirignano, & Joshi, 1996). Fewer still have explored super-vision after school among elementary school students. Our study attempted to fill that gap.


  • Location. Physical context is an important determinant of what students do. One study (Medrich, Roizen, Rubin, & Buckley, 1982) found that nearly three-quarters of the students in the sample went straight home from school, regardless of whether an adult was home to greet them.
  • Students' characteristics. What students do and the amount of time they spend doing it are likely to be affected by the students' characteristics, such as age and gender. As students mature, the range of activities that they want and are allowed to do broadens. In addition, gender differences exist, particularly in such activities as household work, personal care, and participation in household conversations. Gender differences show up more clearly in older students.
  • Family economics. What students do also depends on their parents' education levels and income. Well-educated parents often encourage students to participate in educational activities, such as reading and studying. Higher-income families typically can afford more expensive sports clubs and lessons for their children than lower-income families can.
  • Supervision and companionship. The type of activity, the location, and the kind and amount of supervision are closely linked. In this study, we examined whether location is linked to supervision and the involvement of adults and peers.

Our Study

For our study, we classified the primary activities of students grades K–7 into 20 major categories. We used 18 categories from another study (Timmer, Eccles, & O'Brien, 1985), such as personal care, eating, sleeping, household work, school, studying, and reading, plus participation in day care and youth organizations.


The data come from the 1997 Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (Hofferth, Davis-Kean, Davis, & Finkelstein, 1999), an annual 30-year longitudinal survey of a representative sample of U.S. men, women, children, and the families with whom they reside. In spring and fall 1997, data were collected on randomly selected 0- to 12-year-olds, both from the primary caregivers and from the students themselves. We looked at a sample of 1,484 students grades K–7 who went to school on a sample day. Because we were interested in students' time during after-school waking hours, we studied only those activities that they participated in after the school day ended until they went to bed, a six-hour period.
We based the study on 24-hour time diaries during one weekday. An interviewer asked either the parent or the parent and the student questions about the student's flow of activities during the 24-hour period beginning at midnight. The interviewer asked about the primary activity that the child was doing, when the activity began and ended, and whether any other activity took place concurrently. The interviewer also asked where the child was during the activity, who participated with the child, and whether anyone else was with the child but was not directly involved in the activity.
Student characteristics. Because a major transition in child care occurs at about age 9 or 10 (Hofferth, Brayfield, Deich, & Holcomb, 1991), we divided the students into three age groups: kindergarten (age 5), grades 1–3 (ages 6–8), and grades 4–7 (ages 9–12). In our sample, 12 percent of the students were in kindergarten, 39 percent in grades 1–3, and 48 percent in grades 4–7. The sample contained an equal proportion of boys and girls.
Family characteristics. We categorized the mothers' education levels: 18 percent of the mothers had less than a high school education, 33 percent had a high school diploma, 27 percent had some college education, 14 percent had a college degree, and 8 percent had some graduate school experience. We also compared the income of students' families to the poverty line that was calculated by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and identified those families who were under 100 percent of the poverty line, between 100 and 200 percent, and 200 percent and over.


Where do students go first? At the end of the school day, 73 percent of the students went directly home, 8 percent stayed at school, 11 percent went to a day-care center or a family day-care home, and 8 percent went somewhere else, such as a parent's workplace, indoor or outdoor recreation centers, stores or shopping centers, restaurants, nonretail businesses, or churches. Where students went varied, first of all, by their grade level. More students in grades 4–7 went directly home and fewer were in day care, which makes sense: Older students are more often able to care for themselves. The number of students who stayed at school did not vary by age.
Participation in after-school activities. All students spent some time at home, and most spent some time elsewhere. One-quarter spent time in day care or at someone else's home, and 13 percent spent some time at school during the after-school hours.
Home. At home, television viewing topped the list of activities. Seventy-six percent of students of all ages watched television. Playing and studying were also common; half the students played and half studied. A surprising one-third did household chores. One-quarter spent some time reading for pleasure. About 15 percent engaged in sports activities or household conversations. Ten percent engaged in "passive leisure," which involved such activities as listening to music or just sitting around.
School. Students who stayed at school participated in sports (24 percent) and art activities (11 percent). They also studied (8 percent), visited with others (8 percent), and played (9 percent). Eleven percent were involved in youth organizations. About 10 percent engaged in passive leisure, and about 1 percent watched television at school.
Elsewhere. Of students who went to other locations after school, half played sports and one-quarter went shopping. Fourteen percent visited other people and 12 percent played. Fifteen percent engaged in educational activities, such as religious education or tutoring. Twelve percent reported that they did nothing or they just "hung out." Again, about 1 percent reported watching television.

Interpretation of Findings

Location and Activity

Students played in all locations, most commonly at home (54 percent) and in day care (43 percent), and less frequently at school (9 percent) and in other locations (12 percent). Students played sports at school (24 percent) and elsewhere (46 percent). They read for pleasure primarily at home, where 25 percent of students read for about half an hour.
Students watched television mainly in the home, though a small proportion watched television in day-care centers or in a caregiver's home. They spent about 1 hour and 40 minutes watching television at home after school and about one hour watching in a child care setting.
About 20 percent of the students attended a youth organization meeting, mostly at school or elsewhere. Although this is a lower rate than the total number of students enrolled in those organizations, it gives an accurate picture of the involvement of youth in organizations on any given day. They spent between 30 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes at youth organizations.
Students did schoolwork in a variety of settings. Although some studied in child care and after-school programs, most studied at home. About half the students spent some time studying at home; however, they only studied for 45 minutes in the early primary grades and for one hour in grades 4–7.

Gender Differences

Gender differences were reflected only in certain activities. At home, boys in grades 4–7 tended to do more studying, sports, and playing, and less visiting, art, reading, and other passive leisure activities than girls did. At school, twice as many boys played sports. Girls did more tidying up, visiting, art, and passive leisure activities. But girls studied more at school than boys did. In other locations, boys were twice as likely to play sports, and girls were more likely to do household work, visit, and participate in art activities.


Adult supervision varied by location. Although students were highly supervised for most of the time in all settings, adult supervision was greatest in day care and at school and was least available at home and in other settings. At school and day care, students were almost never unsupervised. At home, students spent more time unsupervised, but only a fraction—3 percent—were alone. Students spent the largest proportion of time (10 percent) with peers or siblings only in other locations and at home. The older the students, the less adult supervision they had and the more time they spent with peers or alone. Students in grades 4–7 spent almost 6 percent of their home time alone and 10 percent of home time with peers only, compared with kindergartners, who spent 1 percent alone and 6 percent with peers.

Family Income and Education

As we might expect, family income and maternal education related to the amount of time that students spent in activities after school. One of the best examples of income differences was participation in sports activities. Better-educated parents and those with higher incomes were able to afford more opportunities for their children. Schools equalized many of these opportunities, however. Although students from low-income families were no more or less likely to be enrolled in sports activities outside of school, they were more likely to be enrolled in school settings.

What Educators Need to Know

Although 73 percent of elementary school students go home right after school, the proportion increases—from two-thirds of kindergartners to three-fourths of students grades 4–7—as students become more responsible for their own care. Students' activities vary substantially, depending on where they go after school. At school and day-care programs after school, students watch little television and do little studying or reading. They participate in structured activities, such as sports and youth organizations. Students do the majority of studying, playing, television watching, and reading at home.
What are the implications? With both parents more likely to work outside the home in recent decades, students spend less time at home. Although students study and play in several contexts, our findings showed that their reading time takes place primarily at home. As their time at home declines, so too will their time spent reading for pleasure. Because reading is the activity most strongly and consistently associated with student achievement (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001b), this finding is worrisome.
Our findings also suggest that schools can play an equalizing role in providing access to certain activities after school for less-privileged students. Low-income students and students whose mothers have little education are less likely to play sports in indoor or outdoor recreation centers than at school or home, but they are more likely to play sports at school. Program planners in schools must take this fact into account.
School-based programs provide supervision and a safe environment. As students mature, however, they often prefer to spend time after school at home, even if unsupervised, because they can relax, read, and watch television. To appeal to the 10- to 12-year-old group, after-school programs need to take into account the need for independence and self-determination as well as the need for supervision and help with homework. Serving this in-between age of students is a challenge for educators. Information on what students choose to do at home and in other locations may help educators plan attractive after-school activities for this group.

Asmussen, L., & Larson, R. (1991). The quality of family time among young adolescents in single-parent and married-parent families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 1021–1030.

Bianchi, S., & Robinson, J. (1997). What did you do today? Children's use of time, family composition, and the acquisition of social capital. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 332–344.

Eccles, J., & Barber, B. (1999). Student council, volunteering, basketball, or marching band: What kind of extra-curricular involvement matters? Journal of Adolescent Research, 14, 10–43.

Hofferth, S. L., Brayfield, A., Deich, S., & Holcomb, P. (1991). National child care survey, 1990. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Hofferth, S. L., Davis-Kean, P., Davis, J., & Finkelstein, J. (1999). 1997 user guide: The child development supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Hofferth, S. L., & Sandberg, J. F. (2001a). Changes in American children's time, 1981–1997. In T. Owens & S. L. Hofferth (Eds.), Children at the millennium: Where have we come from, where are we going? New York: Elsevier Science.

Hofferth, S. L., & Sandberg, J. F. (2001b, forthcoming). How American children use their time. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(3).

Medrich, E., Roizen, J., Rubin, V., & Buckley, S. (1982). The serious business of growing up: A study of children's lives outside school. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, B., O'Connor, S., Sirignano, S., & Joshi, P. (1996). I wish the kids didn't watch so much TV: Out-of-school time in three low-income communities [School-age child care project]. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women.

Timmer, S. G., Eccles, J., & O'Brien, K. (1985). How children use time. In F. S. Juster (Ed.), Time, goods, and well-being (pp. 353–382). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Sandra L. Hofferth has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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