American 6-12 year old Children’s Outdoor and Indoor Leisure Time, 1997 to 2003

by Sandra Hofferth, Ph.D., Department of Family Studies, University of Maryland

[Note: Sandra Hofferth is the foremost researcher of how American children spend their time. is the first to publish this article, which presents her results on children’s leisure time using the most recent data set from 2003. You can {encode=”” title=”email her directly”} if you have questions about this study.]

Are children less active and spending more time indoors than in the past? We suspect that this is the case. Television, computing, and video games, all relatively new activities, are indoor activities and require little physical exertion. As they increase, time spent out-of-doors is likely to decrease unless a way is found to integrate computers and out-of-door activities for children. In this essay I report on the most recent data that examine how much time children actually spend in a variety of different types of activities.Although we don’t have comparable numbers from the distant past, we do have a comparison between 1997 and 2003, the most recent years for which comprehensive data are available. The data come from two Child Development Supplements to the Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a 30-year longitudinal survey of a representative sample of U.S. men, women, children and their families. Families with children under age 13 in 1997 were asked to provide information on their children in 1997 and again in fall 2002 to spring 2003. As part of each study and assisted by parents, children filled out diaries of their activities over a 24-hour period for a weekday and a weekend day. Based on these diaries, estimates of children’s weekly time in a variety of activities were calculated. When weights are used, as was done here, these data are representative of the U.S. population of children in the appropriate ages in these two years.

What is the good news?

First of all, between 1997 and 2003 6 to 12 year olds’ time spent playing (primarily indoors) did not experience the decline that had occurred between 1981 and 2003. In addition, the television viewing time of children ages 6 to 8 did not increase between 1997 and 2003.

And the bad news?

Children were not very physically active in 2003. The proportion of 6-8 year-olds who spent time outdoors was small, only 12% in 2003, about the same as in 1997. The proportion of 9-12 year-olds spending time out of doors actually declined. Only 8% of 9-12 year-olds spent time out of doors walking, hiking, etc. in 2003, half of the 16% in 1997. The time spent was also very small. Of those who spent any time out of doors, in 2003 the average weekly time spent by 6-12 year-olds who spent any time in outdoor activities was 4 hours and 10 minutes. In addition, the proportion of children 6 to 8 and 9 to 12 who spent time playing sports, either informally or with a team, declined from 76% to 60% between 1997 and 2003.

Does it matter where children live?

In warm weather states compared to other states, children participate in more outdoor activities, indoor play is lower, and sports participation tends to be higher. But even in warm states children were less active in 2003 compared with 1997, as indicated by a decline in time spent in sports.

So what were they doing, instead?

Studying. Children spent more time studying in 2003 compared with 1997. Two-thirds of children studied on a given day/week in 2003 and study time was up about 25%.

Reading. Children spent more time reading books for pleasure. Almost half read in a given week in 2003, compared with two out of five in 1997. Spending more time reading for pleasure has been shown to be associated with higher scores on tests of verbal skills.

Sleeping. In addition, children spent almost 2 more hours sleeping in 2003 than in 1997.

School. Younger children 6 to 8 years old spent a bit more time in school; the latter’s time is now comparable to that of 9-12 year-olds, about 33 hours per week.

Playing with the Computer. Children are spending more time on the computer. The proportion of children who used the computer increased between 1997 and 2003. The proportion who used the computer for studying was small and did not increase. For most of the time children are using the computer they are playing, not studying. Playing on the computer has increased both in terms of the proportion who play (games) on the computer and the amount of time they spend. The proportion of children 6-8 playing with the computer rose from 11 % to 24% and the proportion 9-12 rose from 20 to 28%. Noncomputer-play time actually declined for all children. As a result, computer play took a larger chunk out of children’s total play time in 2003 than in 1997. If computer use had not increased, total play time would have declined.

Watching Television or Playing Video games. The time spent watching television and playing video games rose for 9 to12 year olds, though not for 6 to 8 year olds. In 2003, children 6 to 8 spent 12 and one-half hours watching television and children 9 to12 spent almost 15 hours a week watching television. Forty percent of the 9 to 12 year olds played video games and those who did so spent 6 hours a week playing video games. Video games are a male activity. In 2003, 57% of boys and only 17% of girls played a video game during the week of the interview. Including everyone, boys played for 3 hours and 49 minutes compared with 47 minutes for girls. Just looking at those who played, boys played about 7 hours per week, compared with 4 and one-half hours for girls.

Other Sources

For more information about the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, see Also see Sandra L. Hofferth, “The Home Media Use of Children age 6 to 12 in the United States: 1997-2003,” available at, and see Sandra L. Hofferth and Jack Sandberg, 2001, “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997,” pp. 193-229 in Children at the Millennium: Where Have We Come From, Where are We Going? Advances in Life Course Research, volume 6 (S.L. Hofferth and T.J. Owens, editors), Oxford, England: Elsevier.

Appendix B – Definitions of Activity Categories

Play. Included in play are pretend play and dress-up play; playing games such as card games, board games, social games and puzzles; playing with toys; electronic video and computer games; and other unspecified play.

Outdoor activities. Included in outdoor activities are walking for pleasure, hiking, pleasure drives, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, camping, going to the beach, gardening, boating, snowmobiling, and motorcycling.

Sports. Included in sports are team sports such as football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, hockey, soccer, and field hockey; individual sports such as tennis, squash, and racquetball, golf, swimming, skiing, ice or roller skating, sledding, bowling, ping pong or pinball, judo, weight lifting, jogging or running, bicycling, gymnastics; and other activities such as playing Frisbee or catch, exercises such as yoga, and lessons in any of the above.

Bookmark the permalink of this post.

3 Responses to American 6-12 year old Children’s Outdoor and Indoor Leisure Time, 1997 to 2003