Why Low-Income Children Miss Opportunities to Participate in Activities Outside of School

Dearing, E., Wimer, C., Simpkins, S. D., Lund, T., Bouffard, S. M., Caronongan, P., Kreider, H., & Weiss, H. (2009). Do neighborhood and home contexts help explain why low-income children miss opportunities to participate in activities outside of school? Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1545-1562.

Children in low-income families may have few opportunities to participate in activities that provide the developmental enrichment central to children’s social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. Previous research identified numerous benefits of participation in these activities (such as sports, music lessons, and community clubs), including higher levels of academic achievement and lower levels of substance abuse.  Low participation in activities outside of school may be due to both direct costs (e.g., activity fees) and indirect costs (e.g., transportation).  Yet, participation in such activities has remained low even in cases where federal  programs have been implemented to provide accessible and affordable options.  Dearing and colleagues (2009) hypothesized that correlates of low-income, such as characteristics of the child’s home environment (e.g.,  unemployment) or neighborhood (e.g.,  safety risks) may contribute to low participation. Data on a diverse sample of 1,420 elementary school children was drawn from a large, longitudinal study of children and families throughout the United States. Interviewers completed assessments of cognitive stimulation and emotional support in the home as well as neighborhood safety/order.  Parents reported to the interviewers about their children’s participation in several different categories of activities. Neighborhood affluence was calculated from U.S. Census data on income, education, and employment.  Results showed that children from higher income homes were more likely than children from lower income homes to participate in athletic, community center, lessons, summer camp activities, and activities outside of church, and this difference was particularly acute for children at the lowest income levels. The reverse relationship was found for participation in church-related activities, with greater participation levels at lower, rather than higher, income levels. Both higher family income and neighborhood safety/order predicted higher levels of cognitive stimulation in the home, which in turn predicted participation in activities outside of school.  The authors concluded that (1) very poor children are in greatest need of interventions to provide enriching activities, (2) that these interventions should target home and neighborhood mechanisms in addition to providing access to activities, and (3) that it may be most effective for these interventions to collaborate with neighborhood churches.

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More information on after school opportunities for low-income children, including the federal program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, is available from Afterschool Alliance.