CYC-Online 57 OCTOBER 2003
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from the soapbox

Overprogramming for the few, underprogramming for the many

Karen vanderVen

Frequently I hear that American children and youth are “overprogrammed”. This means as the term implies, that young people continually have a structured, formal activity scheduled such a “computer class”, “ballet class”, “gymnastics”, “soccer”, and “Little League” . Even peer play may have to be planned as a “play date”. The child's calendar is as filled as that of a senior corporate executive. “Give them time just to do nothing” the opponents of “overprogramming” intone. Let’s take another look at this.

“Overprogramming” to me an economic class phenomenon, generally characteristic of upper and upper middle class American society. Yet even within this celestial category, many youth are still unconnected with the healthy activities that might be offered to others in excess. The less privileged, who comprise much greater numbers have much much less. It is a mistake to lump them into the artificial category of “overprogramming” to overgeneralize its implications to all children and youth.

The notion of universal “overprogramming” isn’t supported by various reports that many, many kids are bored, unoccupied and unengaged, and by observations of groups of unoccupied young people hanging on the street corner, or slouched in front of television sets . If they’re not exactly doing “nothing” maybe they’re not doing much, either, at least the kinds of things that contribute to positive development.

For example, The SEARCH Institute’s Developmental Assets model names 40 assets that, if present in youths” lives, can contribute to their positive development and well being. One asset is “Creative Activities -” youth participation in three or more hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theatre, or other arts.” In a survey given in 318 communities in 33 states of all 40 assets, this one received the lowest percentage of affirmation, with only 20% reporting its presence! [See and]

There are some other ominous trends as well. One is the continued elimination of art and music from the curriculum in financially strapped school systems (it’s no wonder then that youth do not have this asset). Physical education has also been eliminated, meaning that many “underactivitied” children as I call them, do not receive the opportunity for exposure to different sports. After school clubs and extra curricular activities have also been on the chopping block, further compounding the deprivation.

The new film “Thirteen” reportedly shows young girls descending into an array of unhealthy and asocial activities. One would rather see such girls at ball or swimming practice, playing jacks, practicing the piano or visiting a nursing home, and wondering whether if they had developed a more wholesome interest or hobby that there would not be such a downward spiral in their development. Investment in an activity might have served to focus their energy and friendships around more prosocial occupations.

One example of “overprogramming” is early siphoning of just the very select few into highly organized sports programs that offer intense activity in one domain. Just last week I read about five-year-olds who have corporate sponsorship for their competitive skateboarding. “Too much, too soon”, we’d probably all agree, feeling as well that in guided moderation and with a provision for safety, skateboarding can be a positive activity. Thus I ask: What are the millions of kids who should also have opportunity to participate in a variety of sports activities, doing ? Where are the adults who at least might provide some encouragement, some instruction, and some suitable equipment and space ?

There is “overprogramming” for the chosen few and for those indeed it may not always be a good thing. Using that terminology, there’s even more “underprogramming” for the very many. It’s up to us as child and youth workers to not only make our voice known but also to use ourselves and our own interests and skills to make sure that activities in a balanced way, get to all children and youth.


SEARCH Institute. (2002) The asset approach: 40 elements of healthy development. Minneapolis, MN: SEARCH Institute.

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