School's out, activities in


Playing video games might be good for children’s development, a new report has found, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

IF IT’S Tuesday it must be ballet – Monday is music and Wednesday is swimming . . . For many a family the days of the week are defined by who has to be where to do what after school.

The pursuit of structured after-school activities for children is a feature of modern parenting, particularly in big urban areas where new classes pop up all the time. Not only are there the well-established choices, ranging from music and drama to sports and dance, but how about a fashion club, Spanish classes or yoga for your child?

Some parents seem to spend every afternoon on the road, chauffeuring their children from A to B. Their motivations vary from one of “concerted cultivation” – in the words of US psychologist Annette Lareau – to simply the belief that children are better off “doing something” rather than sitting at home in front of a computer, gaming console or television screen.

Deciding what to do after school is unlikely to come down solely to a child’s personal preferences. Questions of childcare, logistics, finance, time, peer influences and what their parents would like to see them doing are just some of the factors that come into play.

Now, for the first time in Ireland, we have significant research into how children spend their time after school.

The latest report from the national longitudinal study, Growing Up in Ireland, published last Thursday not only looks at the out-of-school activities of nine-year-old children but also how these seem to affect their academic performance.

More research is needed to establish definitive cause and effect, say the authors of Influences on Nine-year-olds’ Learning: Home, School and Community, but they are flagging some significant differences.

Many of the patterns emerging are as you might expect: children engaged in organised cultural activities such as music, art or drama, do better. And girls, particularly middle-class girls, are much more likely to participate in these activities than boys. Those who mostly play sport and watch television after school and are involved in less cultural activities did least well.

What stands out is how the children who participated in lots of structured activities seemed to fare less well too.

These are children trying to do a lot of everything, who are constantly on the go and have very little downtime, one of the report’s authors, Selina McCoy, senior research officer with the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute), tells The Irish Times.

Of the 8,500 nine year olds interviewed, along with their primary carers, some 15 per cent fell into the “busy lives” category. At what point involving your child in mind- and body-enhancing after-school activities backfires for their academic performance is hard to say. “It indicates some level of balance is needed, but it is very hard to quantify,” McCoy comments.

However, parents should pay heed to the fact that children with “busy lives” performed only slightly better than the group who spent the most time watching television. It suggests that over-structuring children’s recreation can cancel out the benefits of “concerted cultivation”.

Another finding, which parents may find surprising, is how time spent on computers and video gaming seems to promote engagement and achievement at school. It’s not just mindless fun after all. Analysis of what the nine year olds did after school shows five distinct “clusters” of activities. All the children fell into one of the five groupings, which are profiled (see graphic) and compared.

Even taking into account a wide range of background differences of the children in each cluster, the report finds two groups had substantively higher reading and mathematics scores, as measured by the “Drumcondra tests” in primary schools.

Firstly, children who participated in organised cultural activities, as well as frequent reading for pleasure, had a significant achievement advantage over those who could be regarded as having a “traditional” childhood, that is one centring on television, sports and hanging around with friends, with little use of information and communication technology (ICT) outside school.

Secondly, better scores in maths and reading were also evident for the “social networkers” group, comprising the only children in the sample who used ICT for social interaction, even though they had frequent face-to-face contact with their friends outside school as well.

This group used ICT not only for social networking but also for fun, learning and listening to music or watching films. At the same time, they read for pleasure fairly frequently.

“Their use of ICT, frequent contact with friends and level of reading appeared to result in forms of social and cultural capital that facilitated school performance,” the report notes.

It also highlights “a smaller but nonetheless significant gap” in reading and mathematics achievement evident between the “sports/computer games” group and the one that performed least well – “TV/sports”.

“Given comparable levels of involvement in sports, ICT usage appeared to be the differentiating factor.”

Some 26 per cent of the sports/ computer gamers said they spent more than three hours a day on video gaming, compared with 23 per cent of the TV/sports group. (Just 12 per cent of the cultural activities group spent that amount of time on it.)

So perhaps prolonged active use of screens – as opposed to the passive watching of TV – is not the brain-rotting, waste of time many parents think it is.

“The sports and computer games group is doing pretty well; there seems to be a cognitive gain as the neuroscientists are saying,” comments McCoy.

Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, and founding director of its Institute of Neuroscience, is not surprised at this association between the use of technology and better academic achievement.

“Interaction with technology improves perceptual and attention abilities,” he explains. Using language to communicate with people through the computer is beneficial.

But “within limits”, he stresses, “it is all about balance.” The risk is the use of technology will take over at the expense of other activities.

“Playing video games can be pleasurable and such reward is mediated by dopamine release in the brain, which motivates players to play more. Excessive activation of the dopamine reward system can lead to addictive-type behaviours in some cases.”

However, if they were his children, he would prefer them to be video gaming rather than watching television, he adds.

Positive effects of video gaming have to be balanced against proven downsides, such as evidence that children who play a lot of particularly violent games are more aggressive in real life, in both behaviour and in feelings towards other people.

Equally, the markedly higher participation by girls in cultural activities and social networking, while their male peers are more likely to do sport and video gaming, also has a downside.

It may enhance the girls’ academic performance, but it is hardly unrelated to a previous finding by Growing Up in Ireland, that they are significantly more likely to be overweight – 22 per cent were classed as overweight and 8 per cent obese, compared with 19 and 5 per cent respectively for boys.

Deciding what’s best for your children is never easy, but these latest findings are worth considering as you organise their after-school lives.

“It is important that parents are made aware of the potential benefits of doing a wide range of activities, both for physical wellbeing and for learning,” adds McCoy.

So will it be tennis or taekwondo? Hip-hop or Irish dancing? Piano or the drums? Don’t overdo it, remember . . . and the next time you see your children engrossed in video games, give them a break – it might just be good for them.

Influences on Nine-year-olds’ Learning: Home, School and Community can be read in full on

Gaelscoileanna lead the way for culture and reading

Children attending Gaelscoileanna stand out in this latest Growing Up in Ireland report that looks at after-school activities. They were most likely to participate in cultural activities and least likely to be included in the group whose recreation involved primarily sport and watching television.

Gaelscoileanna, which account for about 5 per cent of primary schools, were also notable for having nine year olds who read more frequently for pleasure than their peers in English-medium schools. However, their pupils had the lowest rate of access to computers and the internet.

“The fact that the pattern in Gaelscoileanna was quite different from that found in Gaeltacht schools means that the difference cannot be attributed to school language medium per se,” comment the report’s authors. “Rather, it appears to reflect the differences in the motivations, and perhaps social networks, of parents who choose to send their child to a Gaelscoil, and these differences are not reducible to social class, education or income variation.”

In exploring how children’s experiences inside school influences what they do outside school, the report also finds that having internet access in school is associated with greater use of information and communication technology (ICT) outside school, especially for social networking.

The majority of nine year olds had access to a computer in their classroom, but internet access was more variable, and for more than a fifth of children a computer was “never or almost never” used as part of day-to-day learning.

The use of ICT was more prevalent at both ends of the social spectrum – that is, in private and designated disadvantaged schools. This suggests that State-backed initiatives in disadvantaged schools are helping to mitigate some of the social inequality.

“There was some evidence that children’s engagement in out-of-school activities was related to the characteristics of the school they attended,” the report concludes. “If these activities influence educational outcomes, then participation may reinforce (or indeed counter) pre-existing differences in academic achievement.”