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What Kids Need for Optimal Health and School Engagement

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Reprinted from "Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids" by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown & Sarah Miles with permission from Wiley.  Copyright © 2015.


Even the best-laid plans will likely remain plans without effective communication and professional development for school faculty and staff, a mechanism for soliciting and truly hearing student voices, and extensive parent education on the goals you are trying to accomplish with your new policies and programs. It seems so obvious, but we’ve seen schools take this part for granted and watch all of their hard work go nowhere.

Communication is often the ultimate key to the success and sustainability of a particular reform, and, as you have heard us say a number of times in this book, bringing the school community together to dialogue and solve problems, even though it will be difficult at times, is the best way to accomplish what you set out to do.

Research shows that including a variety of stakeholders—from parents to students to school teachers and staff—in the design and implementation of a school change is critical to its success (Mitra&Gross, 2009; Osberg, Pope, &Galloway, 2006; Rice, 2011).Will everyone buy into your plans for change? Most likely not, but being inclusive, communicating your plan honestly and effectively, and supporting it with data will give you the best chance for success. In order for students, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators to work together toward effective school change, all parties need to have a basic understanding of what kids need for optimal health and school engagement. At Challenge Success we developed a mnemonic aid: PDF. It stands for playtime, downtime, and family time. We looked at the research for protective factors for kids—those things that every kid needs in order to thrive physically, mentally, and academically—and we boiled these down to three main categories for well-being. Our mantra is “every kid needs PDF every day.”



Play is really the work of kids. It helps them to solve problems, negotiate with others, try out new ideas and identities, and develop self-regulation, among other things. Playtime can include structured activities, such as Little League and an after-school art class, and it can include unstructured activities, such as playing with toys, going to the playground, and shooting the basketball with friends. For tweens and teens it can also include some time spent on social media. For all ages, research suggests that play—especially when it is freely chosen, unstructured, and kid-directed—is linked to a wide variety of positive outcomes including increased cognitive skills, physical health, self-regulation, language abilities, and social skills (Alliance for Childhood, 2010; Barker et al., 2014; Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001).

Denise Pope
Courtesy of Denise Pope

Experts agree that every child needs some time for play every day, but we know that many kids don’t get this. One reason may be, as we noted in Chapter Two, that time spent in school has increased. Twenty years ago, the time spent in school ranged from five to six hours a day, but currently children in the United States spend at least six to seven hours a day in school (Juster, Ono, & Stafford, 2004). In our own research with Challenge Success schools, we have found that, on average, after you count hours in school and hours in structured extracurricular activities such as sports, drama, or debate, as well as hours for commuting and paid work, middle school students report that on a typical weekday they have approximately 1.5 hours of free time, and high school students report having approximately 1 hour (Conner & Pope, 2013a). Another nationwide study found that children under 12 years old have approximately two hours of free time during the day and that this decreases as they get older (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001). In addition to differences between younger and older children, the amount of free time reported in the research varies depending on family income: Children from lower income households often have more free time than peers from households with higher incomes (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001; Larson, 2001.) Of course, the benefits (or risks) associated with the amount of free time depends on what kids do with that free time. Watching TV for three hours each day may be detrimental to kids, but spending unstructured time playing with friends or family is associated with positive outcomes (Barnes, Hoffman,Welte, Farrell, & Dintcheff, 2007; Larson, 2001).

Unfortunately, time for free play within school hours has also declined. Many schools have reduced or even eliminated recess for elementary school children, and several have cut back on free play and play-based learning in the early grades such as kindergarten and first grade (Zygmunt-Fillwalk & Bilello, 2005). For instance, we used to see several hours of free play and free choice activities in the younger grades, where kids could build in the blocks corner or enact their own stories in the dress-up area, but more schools are focused on traditional, often worksheet-based, literacy and numeracy activities now. We recommend keeping ample time for recess in school, as well as carving out time for kids to have more choice in activities in the classroom so they are able to use their imagination, build and make things, interact with others, and have some ownership over what and how they are learning. As we mentioned in Chapter Four on project-based learning, these kinds of play-based projects and activities, in which students of all ages have a choice and voice, can lead to authentic motivation to learn and important lifelong skills.

Overloaded and UnderpreparedPlaytime for middle and high school kids looks a little different from playtime for younger kids, both at home and at school. For kids in middle school and high school, playtime often means spending time with friends as well as doing things they enjoy, such as extracurricular activities. Activities such as sports, visual and performing arts, community service, journalism, and academic clubs can be sources for positive playtime for teenagers (Mahoney, Cairns, & Farmer, 2003;Mahoney, Larson, & Eccles, 2005). In our research, the vast majority of our sample of almost 8,000 high school students reported that the main reason they participate in extracurriculars is because they enjoy them (Conner & Pope, 2013a). Other studies have also linked participation in extracurricular activities to positive social and academic outcomes (Mahoney et al., 2003). When kids participate in these activities, they have a chance to interact with peers, learn new skills, exercise, and challenge themselves in rewarding ways.

Research also shows that you need to find the right balance when it comes to extracurricular activities. We know that kids have many wonderful extracurricular choices these days, and parents tell us they don’t want to disadvantage their children by restricting what they do. Unfortunately, over-scheduling students in too many hours of extracurricular activities and limiting free unstructured playtime may do more harm than good (Levine, 2006). How much is too much? In our survey results, we found that when high school students participated in very high amounts of extracurriculars during the week (over 15–20 hours), they had more emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, slept less, and experienced higher stress levels than those doing fewer hours of extracurricular activities (Conner & Pope, 2013a). Dr. David Elkind (2007), one of the country’s most respected experts on play, recommends that kids have around the same amount of structured playtime, such as time for extracurricular activities, as unstructured playtime, such as time to shoot hoops or hang out with friends. In fact, friends are of the utmost importance to tweens and teens and understandably so (Berscheid, 2003; Gifford-Smith & Brownell, 2003). Making and sustaining friendships is an important part of adolescents’ overall social and emotional adjustment (Buhrmester, 1990); by interacting with peers, teens begin to form their own identities.

Ideally, the majority of the time teens spend with their friends should be in person, but we know from recent research that some (or much) teen interaction may take place via mobile phones and social media. The Pew Research Project found that texting is now the most common form of communication teens have with their friends (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010). Pew researchers also found that the percentage of teens using social media rose from 55 percent in 2006 to 81 percent in 2012. Though it is clear that the use of social media and texting is on the rise, the research is not as well-developed concerning the right amount of time for kids to spend on social media and on the quality of the friendships that are formed and maintained online (Bargh & McKenna, 2004). What we do know is that teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and have lower abilities to self-regulate than adults; therefore, social media can pose real risks to teens, including cyberbullying, sexting, and the negative influences of online “friends” and advertisers (O’Keefe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).Though many teens report that they feel less shy, more confident, and more popular when they use social media, most teens say that they prefer face-to-face communication and recognize some of the trade-offs when using social media (Common Sense Media, 2012).

With this in mind, we recommend that free playtime for this age group include time with friends, but parents and teachers should emphasize that the majority of this time should take place face-to-face rather than via social media. We recommend that teachers discuss the pros and cons of social media with kids as well as ask parents—especially those with preschool and elementary aged children, tweens, and young teens—to monitor online activities. One suggestion teachers might make is for parents and kids to remove all social media equipment (phones, tablets, computers, televisions, and so on) from bedrooms at nighttime, and to keep most social media activity in a public place, such as a living room or kitchen, where an adult can monitor more easily.And, of course, parents and kids need to be sure they are not overscheduling extracurricular activities.We offer the timewheel tool in Figure 8.1 as one way to track how much time each kid is spending on daily activities and where some balancing work needs to be done.

Finally, we encourage schools to build in time for play for kids of all ages. Along with creating more time for student-centered, project-based learning in which students have some say over what they do, several schools are utilizing design labs or maker fairs where students can create and build projects of their choice in their free time. In addition, some of our Challenge Success schools have been planning specific times for joyful, unstructured activities that promote face-to-face interaction and playtime to help alleviate student stress at particularly intense moments during the year. For instance, some middle and high schools host spirit weeks or other fun traditions just before or after implementing standardized testing or after midterms or final exams.


The “D” in our PDF stands for downtime. As we showed in Chapter Two on scheduling, running from class to class followed by running from activity to activity is exhausting for adults and kids alike. Kids especially need downtime throughout the day for general physical and emotional health and well-being (Larson & Kleiber, 1993). We define downtime as time that is not focused on structured play or academics; rather, it is time to reflect and to do nothing much—literally. That might mean listening to music, reading a book, watching a television show, or spending time outside in nature. As we discussed earlier in this chapter, we know there are good reasons to be concerned about screen time—both the quality and quantity—but a moderate amount of screen time, in which kids play a video game, watch a show, or check in on social media, may be a good way for kids (and adults) to relax before getting started on homework or heading out to the next activity.

Sleep is an obvious component of downtime for all ages, and as we have already noted, many kids just don’t get enough of it. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations have documented the relationship between sleep deprivation and ADHD, headaches, depression, obesity, and other health problems across childhood and adolescence. According to the National Sleep Foundation (2015), children ages 6 to 13 years old need 9 to 11 hours a night of sleep, and over half don’t get the recommended amount. Teens need at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night, and 80 percent don’t get this much. In our research, students reported, on average, that they got between six and seven hours of sleep on a typical weeknight, well under the amount they need (Galloway et al., 2013; National Sleep Foundation, 2006). A typical teen has a lot going on, both in and out of school, and particularly within his or her body as puberty takes place. Because of this busy time developmentally, teens need rest and downtime for physical and mental health as they mature and begin to form their own identities.They need time to reflect and seek answers to some big questions:

Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? In the busy hustle and bustle of six or seven classes, extracurricular activities, social lives, and family obligations, this important reflection time often gets overlooked. So the next time you see a high school student asleep at his desk or a middle school student staring into space, consider how exhausting it can be to be a teen today. Educate parents to enforce bedtime routines and to encourage enough downtime throughout the day. Sometimes when a teenager is lying on her bed after school, with earbuds in, singing at the top of her lungs—not looking like she is doing anything productive—that actually might be the best way for her to spend 20 to 30 minutes. And even though it might be torture for parents to watch this—knowing the kid has at least two hours of homework to do, a math test to study for, and a two-hour volleyball practice ahead (or a two-hour shift to fulfill at a paid job)—we urge them to resist interrupting this valuable time. After a brief respite, the teen will likely be more productive and, more important, will have found time to debrief and consolidate her thoughts (Carey, 2014).

We also urge schools to consider ways to build in more downtime throughout the school day. In Chapter Two we discuss late starts and longer breaks and lunch periods as important ways to increase downtime in school. Teachers can also schedule more time for reflection in their classes, and build in brief breaks before switching to new units or topics.

Family Time

Finally, it’s important for adults and students to know that family time is a significant protective factor. When kids are part of a family unit that spends time together, they are more likely to feel supported, safe, and loved unconditionally (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001). This holds true for kids of all ages and in all kinds of families. Recent research has shown that kids from preschool to twelfth grade benefit when they have regular family meals together (Fulkerson et al., 2006). Specifically, Fulkerson et al. found that the frequency of family dinners was associated with a variety of positive aspects of development, including an increase in cooperation and getting along with others, higher expectations, a more positive sense of family values, and a commitment to learning. These authors as well as others found that family time was associated with fewer high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and delinquency, and lower rates of depression, eating disorders, and antisocial behavior. Other studies found that family rituals and traditions were associated with positive mental health outcomes as well as positive identity formation for adolescents and increased marital satisfaction for the parents within the family unit (for a review, see Fiese et al., 2002). Maybe it’s a family movie or game night, a regular Saturday morning hike, or cheering your favorite sports team—traditions and rituals like these and regular family meals help to build the support and connection kids need.We know that juggling multiple work schedules and activities can be difficult, but when you make time for family members to be together and create a safe home base, you send a message that your child is loved and supported no matter what.

How can schools support family time? Teachers can limit homework assigned over vacations and holiday breaks to allow for more family time, and they can assign a few low-stakes, family-based projects each year, such as a biology assignment researching a family’s medical history or genetic family tree, to help build family connections. Similarly, as we show in Chapter Seven, teachers can help promote a caring climate at school, similar to a safe home base, as a source of support for kids.When done well, advisories, tutorials, teacher-student conferences throughout the year, and informal times to build faculty-student relationships can all promote family-like relations at school and increase a student’s feeling of belonging.


Denise Pope, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and Co-Founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools and families to provide practical, research-based tools to create a more balanced and academically fulfilling life for kids. Maureen Brown, MBA, is the Executive Director for Challenge Success, and Sarah Miles, MSW, PhD, is the Research Director.