News Release

10-year-olds' free time activities signal interests/attitudes at age 12

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Penn State

Ten-year-olds' free time activities -- as well as whom they spend their free time with -- are linked to gender development, academic interests, school grades and self esteem at age 12, a Penn State study shows.

In addition, the study suggests that time spent in same-sex activities may advantage boys but disadvantage girls during middle school. Dr. Susan McHale, professor of human development and family studies and leader of the study, says, "The amount of time girls spent with other females predicted declines in qualities such as sensitivity and kindness as well as declines in self esteem but time with males, particularly male peers, predicted increases in such qualities among boys."

The study is detailed in a paper, "Links Between Sex-typed Time Use in Middle Childhood and Gender Development in Early Adolescence," published in the September issue of the journal, Developmental Psychology. McHale's coauthors are Ji-Yeon Kim, graduate student; Shawn Whiteman, graduate student; and Dr. Ann C. Crouter, professor of human development and family studies.

The researchers collected data from 103 girls and 97 boys over two years. At the start of the study, each child was about 10 years old, the firstborn in their family and had at least one younger sibling. Each year, the researchers conducted home interviews with the children and their parents followed, during the next two to three weeks, with seven evening telephone interviews.

During the calls, the children were asked how much time they spent in 26 free time activities. The researchers then classified the activities as masculine or feminine depending on whether girls or boys favored them. The researchers do not suggest that activities are sex-typed in any absolute sense, only that the classification represents the worldview of the children in the study.

The children's interest ratings led to 11 activities classified as feminine (read books or magazines, write letters, stories or poems, art activities, knitting, sewing, crocheting or other handicrafts, play a musical instrument, dance, gymnastics, swim, play with pets/animals, gardening, play with dolls/stuffed animals) and 5 activities classified as masculine (sports, hunting and fishing, building with blocks, Legos or models, play with toy vehicles and play with action figures.)

McHale says, "In most cases, our findings showed that girls and boys who spent more time in sex-stereotypical activities and in same-sex social contexts developed more sex-stereotypical characteristics but there were some important exceptions, especially for boys."

For girls, the results showed that involvement in masculine activities, particularly sports, positively predicted math interests. In addition, more time with mother predicted higher language arts grades and more time with father, higher math grades.

"For both girls and boys, more time spent in the company of males predicted increases in qualities like independence, leadership and adventurousness," McHale adds,.

Contrary to expectations, however, for boys, involvement in feminine activities, (especially music performance) positively predicted math grades whereas masculine activities (especially sports) predicted higher language arts grades but lower grades in math.

The researchers note, "Activities have valences in domains beyond gender, and popular images of 'math geeks' versus 'jocks' suggest that math and sports may represent quite different domains of 'stereotypical' masculine achievement."


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