The Importance of Structured Activities for Teens


It may be summer vacation, but that's no excuse to let your kids lounge around all day.

By James Wellborn for

It's summer, again. Do you know what your kids are doing? It is a bad idea for them to have the time and freedom to look for something interesting to do (because we all know where that will lead). The solution? Structured activities: organized sports, day and overnight camps, character building activities (a.k.a., chores, helping Grampa Joe clean up his garage, etc.) and volunteering. But, do kids really need to be involved in challenging, constructive activities. Here are some useful FAQs.

Aren’t kids over-worked and stressed out as it is?

The big deal about our poor children being over-scheduled is a myth. Most kids involved in structured activities really enjoy the experience and get a lot from their participation. Involvement in structured activities is associated with a number of desirable outcomes like better physical health, higher occupational and educational aspirations, greater self-esteem, higher rates of school completion and, get this, improved math and verbal skills. Less than 10% of kids can be considered over-scheduled. The negative effects begin to show up when kids spend more than 20 hours a week at structured activities or participate in 5 or more activities simultaneously. At most, that turns out to be about 6% of kids. So involve your kid in 4 simultaneous activities and stop at 19 hours a week. They should be fine.

Kids need time to just chill and relax don’t they?

Sure. They can take an hour to watch their favorite TV show or listen to some music once a week. Then they need to get back to doing something useful. Allowing your kid to spend three months of the Summer chillaxing results in unrealistic expectations about adult work life. And another thing, who is picking up the tab for all this leisure? Having too much time on your hands only happens to the very rich and the very poor. Guess which one your kid is likely to be if you let them lay around all the time.

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Isn’t it important for kids to develop supportive friendships by socializing together?

Peer relationships are associated with just about every bad outcome for kids. They are also associated with many of the good outcomes. It depends on the peers. Structured activities are the perfect environment for developing quality peer relationships because they are supervised. Supervised by adults. Kids need guidance and mentoring. They need boundaries and encouragement. They need coaching and education. Structured activities are another source of positive adult supervision for your kid while also taking place in a social environment.

I’ve heard that the more time kids have to just play the better their overall development. If that’s true shouldn’t they have lots of time to play?

Yes. Play can be a very productive activity. But. Quality play doesn’t have rules and doesn’t have a purpose. It can be physical, fantasy-based, social, creative and exploratory. It involves getting up (often getting out) and making your own fun (not looking for trouble). Notice that none of the characteristics of quality play are met by pre-programmed electronic media or the passive observation of videos. So, if quality play is an option (a rarity these days), most definitely encourage your kid to play. In the mean time, your kid needs to be productive. Structured activities provide that.

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Doesn’t the very nature of structured activity result in the development of specific skills limited only to that activity?

It is true there are rather limited opportunities in the work place for a really good soccer kick or the ability to perform an intricate cheer routine. But, it turns out that there are a wide range of generalizable skills built into the efforts to master structured activities: communication, patience, leadership, followership, cooperation, flexibility, conflict resolution, frustration tolerance, problem solving and persistence to name just a few. And, these just happen to be some of the very skills that make an employee more valuable whether the job is unskilled, skilled or professional.

Isn’t adolescence supposed to be the best years of their life?

You better hope it isn’t. Otherwise they will be facing 60 plus years of long, slow decline (and ain’t no peak high enough to make that downward slope anything but depressing). Adolescence is just a phase (a fairly modern one, at that). It is setting the stage for the acquisition of sophisticated skills needed for their first career. Only some of those skills are math, reading and science. There are many things kids will learn from participating in structured activities they won’t get in the classroom.

Kids need to be actively involved in constructive activities. They need to find meaning and purpose in what they do. They need to know you can work hard at something and still have fun. These are some of the reasons structured activities make an important contribution to your kid’s quality of life and their preparation for adulthood.

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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families. He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting where strategies for encouraging, praising and building self-confidence in teenagers are included among the 79 chapters on typical teenage issues.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.