Middle childhood is a time when children become increasingly involved in activities and relationships outside of the home. In middle childhood, children enter formal schooling and, by third to fifth grade, they move out of child care. Parents face new issues of providing adequate supervision, educational experiences, developmental opportunities, and recreation for their children outside of school. These issues are particularly salient for single, employed parents with low incomes.
How children spend their time outside of school can play an important role in their psychosocial and academic development. Researchers studying children's out-of-school time use make distinctions between relaxed leisure (i.e., unstructured) activities and constructive or organized leisure (i.e., structured) activities. Engaging in structured activities is a way to acquire and master skills in both social and academic domains. Structured activities provide children with the opportunity to learn, explore their interests, and interact with their peers in organized settings supervised by adults; children who engage in them are socially skilled and tend to do well in school. Conversely, extended time in unstructured environments with little or no adult supervision (e.g., hanging out with friends in the neighborhood) may put children at risk of physical, emotional, and psychological harm (Agnew & Peterson, 1989; Mahoney & Stattin, 2000; McHale, Crouter, & Tucker, 2001).
A large body of research shows that structured out-of-school activities can serve protective, as well as developmentally enhancing, functions during adolescence, but children in the middle childhood years have received less research attention.