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"PRRAC Researcher Report: Keeping Active, Keeping Safe: A Look at Participation in Structured Activities Among Working-Class and Middle-Class Families,"

by Pamela R. Bennett, Amy Lutz & Lakshmi Jayaram March/April 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

Structured activities have become an increasingly important part of children’s lives and educational experiences. In this report we investigate children’s level of participation in structured activities, along with parents’ stated reasons for their participation. Specifically, we investigate class differences in: (1) structured activity enrollment; (2) the types of activities in which children participate; (3) the reasons why parents choose to enroll their children in structured activities. To do this, with PRRAC financial support we conducted in-depth interviews with 49 parents of diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds at two middle schools in a large Northeastern city.

Structured Activities

We asked working- and middle-class parents to name and describe the structured activities in which their children participated. We then grouped those activities into seven categories: (1) sports, (2) cultural, (3) academic, (4) school-service, (5) hobby club, (6) youth development, (7) religious. Activities that qualify as sports and hobby club are well-known, but what we classify as cultural, academic, school-service and youth development activities may not be. Cultural activities include those that involve the arts (music, theater and dance). Academic activities include those that focus on academic pursuits (tutoring, science club and book club). School-service activities are those that assist the school with its functioning (student government, yearbook, library assistance, student diplomat). Finally, youth development activities are those that are designed to help children with life skills, while religious activities include church/temple/mosque-going and other activities at or connected to places of worship.

Participation in activities ranged from as few as none to as many as nine per child. We find that the children of working- and middle-class families have different levels of participation in structured activities. Working-class families reported, on average, 2.5 activities per child, while middle-class families reported 4.8 activities per child. Only 27.3% of middle-class families report three or fewer structured activities, but this low level of activity participation is reported by 80% of working-class families.

Despite social class differences in participation in structured activities, participation among working-class children is not trivial. Like their middle-class counterparts, working-class children participated in a myriad of activities. Among the seven categories of activities that we identify, sports, cultural and academic activities were the most prevalent types, accounting for 26.7%, 20.0% and 17.3% of all structured activities, respectively. These types of activities were also popular among middle-class families, but to a somewhat different degree. Specifically, sports and cultural activities account for an even larger percentage of activities among the middle class than they do among the working class—33.0% and 31.1%, respectively—but academic activities account for a smaller percentage of the activities (10.4%) in which middle-class children participate compared to those of working-class children.

There are, however, differences in the kinds of activities working- and middle-class families invested their time, money and energies. Three are worth noting. First, religious activities—often church attendance—account for a sizeable percentage of the activities of working-class children, but only a small proportion of those of middle-class children (17.3% compared to 7.6%). Second, hobby club activities, such as chess, were relatively popular among middle-class children, but account for a much smaller percentage of the activities of their working-class peers (13.2% versus 5.3%). Third, participation in youth development programs is notably absent among middle-class children, though it accounts for 6.7% of the activities of working-class children.

These findings on the level of participation and the distribution of activities across activity type reveal differences and similarities in structured activity participation among working- and middle-class families. Middle-class children have substantially higher structured activity participation compared to their working-class counterparts. Yet, participation in activities is widespread among working-class families; 25 of 28 families reported activities in which their child(ren) participated. Moreover, both working- and middle-class children participated heavily in sports and cultural activities. In their 2004 article in Poetics, Jason Kaufman and Jay Gabler note that these are precisely the kinds of activities that are expected to increase one’s chances of attending college. That working- and middle-class children heavily participate in such activities may suggest that both groups of parents seek to position their children in activities that pay educational dividends.

Differences also characterize the activity participation of working- and middle-class children. Middle-class families have greater participation in hobby clubs, activities that Kaufman and Gabler have found to be associated with enrollment in elite colleges. In contrast, working-class children make greater investments in religious activities. Given such differences, combined with those in the level of activity participation, it appears that middle-class children are in a better position than are working-class children to benefit from the time, energy and financial investments they and their parents make in structured activities.

Parents’ Reasons for Children’s  Activity Participation

Despite lower levels of participation in structured activities compared to middle-class youth, we find a great deal of support for children’s involvement in structured activities among our working-class sample. Some of the reasons parents cited for their children’s participation in structured activities were similar across social class boundaries. For example, both middle-class and working-class parents often cited their child’s interest in the activity as a primary reason for their child’s participation. Similarly, keeping active was a reason often given by both middle- and working-class parents for children’s participation in structured activities. Likewise, personal growth and the gaining of academic knowledge were reasons commonly given by both groups of parents. Other reasons for participation among working-class families were different from those of middle-class families, with safety mentioned as a primary reason for keeping youth involved in after-school activities.

Keeping children safe and away from trouble is one important reason cited by working-class parents for their children’s participation in structured activities. Working-class parents in our study felt that their neighborhoods are dangerous places and prefer to see their children stay in the environment of school or other locations where structured activities take place. Among those who cited safety as a primary reason for their children’s participation in structured activities, 80% also cited concerns about the level of danger in their neighborhood environment.

Patricia is a working-class African-American single mother with two sons, 14 and 17 years old. Her youngest son participates in an academic program that is unaffiliated with the school, the after-care program at school, and the school drama club. When asked about the extracurricular academic program her son participates in she says, “…it’s really nice. It keeps the kids off the street…gives them somethin’ to do.” Keeping her son off the street is something important to Patricia. She feels the neighborhood has gotten more dangerous in recent years. She mentions the death of a boy in the neighborhood: “Recently, a boy was killed for not selling drugs, for refusing to sell drugs. He got…..they killed him.” This is something she worries could happen to her own son while walking through the neighborhood, so she prefers to have him in extracurricular activities:

    You know, they would kill you. Like I was saying—I’m concerned about [my son’s] traveling because I dress him nice and I’m afraid my son could go out there and get hurt for the garment he got on. I mean, this kid is actually—the guy gave the guy his suede jacket and he shot him in the back anyway ‘cause he wanted to see how it felt. This is what I fear, you know.

Thus, for Patricia, her son’s participation in extracurricular activities is a way of keeping him out of the neighborhood and safe.

Gabriela is a single working-class mother of three from Central America. She works to support her family by cleaning houses. She is very concerned about the dangerous elements she sees in her neighborhood and wants to move. Gabriela does not want her children to spend time outside for their own safety. She says, “It worries me. I…the thing is, I wanna know what it is that they’re doing, you see? I don’t know, I don’t trust the surroundings” (translated from Spanish).

Gabriela’s eighth-grade son participates in the after-care program at school. As part of the program, her son tutors younger children after school. Gabriela is happy about her son’s participation in the program because she feels it keeps her son away from the drug element in the neighborhood. When asked about how satisfied she is with her son’s participation in the after-school program, she said:

    Yes, I’m satisfied. Ah, yes, because it’s helped those kids a lot…a lot, that they not be on the street. Definitely, I don’t know who invented that, but…the nicest thing that could…I can see in…I can say that yes, kids that could be on the street with drugs, they’re entertained there (translated from Spanish).

Gabriela likes her son’s participation in the after-care program because it keeps him indoors and reduces his exposure to the neighborhood. She says, “I try for them to stay occupied. You understand?” She feels that keeping her children occupied protects them from the dangers of the neighborhood.

In sum, working-class parents show a great deal of support for their children’s participation in structured activities. Primary among their reasons for doing so was their desire to keep their children safe by enrolling them in activities that keep children busy and out of the neighborhood.


We plan to present the results of our research to the two schools that participated in our study. We hope school administrators will find the research useful in planning school-based extracurricular activities. We also plan to invite the schools to participate in the National Network of Partnership Schools based at the Johns Hopkins University. The Network uses research to facilitate and sustain family and community involvement for its member schools.

Pamela R. Bennett is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Sociology and Faculty Associate at the Hopkins Population Center at the Johns Hopkins University.
Amy Lutz is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Sociology in the Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
Lakshmi Jayaram is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of Sociology at the Johns Hopkins University.

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