Kids need to play and have balanced lives. What happens when homework interferes with that?
- Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
School is back in session, and many kids who had so much free time that they complained of boredom during the summer are now wishing they had that free time back. In today’s increasingly demanding academic environment, even kindergarten students are assigned homework, and time that was once reserved for play and physical activity in school is now devoted to the pursuit of academic subjects.
While desk work is part of the foundation for learning, developing a deep expertise and understanding, and defining interests, it can be overwhelming for many children.
Educators and psychologists alike question whether the emphasis on homework and academics is good for kids or even helps them learn. There are many reasons to believe that sitting at a desk for six to seven hours a day is detrimental, and the types of learning skills that are needed for the 21st century — collaboration, communication, creativity, digital literacy and initiative — are often not the result of teacher-led, desk-based learning. We have strong data that play and physical activity are crucial to learning, and less compelling research exists about the benefits of homework.
How much homework is enough?
Even the basic guidelines for homework (endorsed by the both the National Education Association and the National PTA) of approximately 10 minutes per grade level per night (from 10 minutes for a first-grader to 120 minutes for a 12th-grader) can be excessive at times and leave little time to engage in play and physical activities. For students with learning disabilities, attentional problems, slow processing and executive function disorders, 30 minutes of homework can easily turn into an entire night of work.
Younger children are getting more homework than they ever did in the past. Many first- and second-grade students are assigned 30 minutes or more of homework a day. Given that these children have already spent seven hours at school — with decreasing amounts of time for physical exercise and play — it is even more important that they have outdoor and general recreation time once they get home. Most adults, after a long day at work, probably feel the same way.
Younger children are getting more homework than they ever did in the past.
When should kids do their homework?
Like it or not, homework is a reality. So when should it be done? Is it always best to buckle down right after school, or should kids have a break before putting their noses back in their books? For kids who are self-starters, homework might be delayed until after dinner, while kids who procrastinate will benefit from a more structured approach. The most effective strategies give kids a specified amount of playtime before they have to tackle homework. Play before homework will not work for every child, but it often leads to better focus and more energy. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a short respite involving screen-based media, the best type of break is one during which kids go outside and exercise their bodies as well as their brains.
Many studies indicate that being outdoors improves focus, creativity and learning. Other studies demonstrate that vigorous physical activity can increase a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that leads to enhancement in both attention and learning. Outdoor physical activity is particularly important for students who find school to be frustrating due to learning or attentional difficulties, as it essentially re-primes their brains. Physical activity after school also addresses the issue of obesity, an increasingly common phenomenon among younger children.
Play before homework … often leads to better focus and more energy.
Making play a requirement of homework
Because play and physical activity are so vitally important for kids’ health and learning, they should be a part of every school day. If teachers insist on giving homework on a daily basis, parents need to demand that kids have opportunities for recreation every day. And while physical exercise is important, other types of play have proven to be helpful for recharging the brain. Playing sports video games has been shown to lead to participation in the sports themselves and an overall increase in physical activity. Games like Toca Life: City prompt creativity skills and can assist children gain cognitive flexibility and other thinking skills.
Parents may need to think outside the box to ensure that their children have adequate opportunities for play and physical activity, and they definitely need to model a balance of play and work so their children can see them engaged in hobbies and regular exercise.
Kids need to have a balanced life, so it’s important for parents to advocate for them when teachers give too much homework. Work with the school and find ways to make homework an engaging learning experience. Encourage your children’s teachers to give them homework beyond drill and skill, including projects that require collaboration with their peers and that nurture your children’s unique interests so that they want to learn more.
Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.