The Seedling Blog

A School Year Debate: Play vs. Homework

As children are getting ready for the start of the school year, parents are likely prepping the kitchen table's inevitable transformation into their kids' homework station. With the amount of homework currently assigned to students, it seems kids spend most of their waking hours reading, studying, writing, memorizing, analyzing. When are they supposed to spend time outdoors to run through the grass, ride their bicycles, or climb trees? When do they just get to be kids? 



Homework’s feeble start can be traced back to days when children of every age were grouped into one school room, all learning at a different level. (Remember the schoolhouse in Little House on the Prairie?) During an era when children worked on the family farm and were depended upon to complete important household tasks, relatively little time was spent at in the classroom. So when children were expected to recite lessons at school, they had no choice but to prepare at home.

The current debate on homework is not a new topic among parents. Believe it or not, there was an early movement to ban homework that began back in 1900; by the 1930s and 40s, many schools had eradicated homework altogether for grades K-6.

“The first backlash began in the early 20th century as repetitive drilling came under attack, and by the '40s, homework had lost favor.”— NY Times

So why the ebb and flow of homework? If you take a quick look at American history, it’s easy to identify issues that motivated our country to hit the books past school hours. An article in The New York Times shares:

“The launch of Sputnik in 1957 generated hysteria that we were losing ground to the Soviet Union, and more homework was one response, but the practice again waned in the 1960s. Homework came roaring back after “A Nation at Risk” in the 1980s as Americans again feared their children were falling behind.”

Sure, it can be beneficial to continue practicing math equations and to read literature assignments at home. Applying concepts learned in school to situations outside of the classroom is essential, but how much homework is too much? According to the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association, the standard is 10 minutes of homework for every grade, meaning 1st graders get 10 minutes, and high school seniors should have a total of 120 minutes. But children are being assigned much more work than that. Some kindergartners are getting as much as 25 minutes of homework a night, the same amount meant for 3rd graders.

Is all this homework actually helping our children, or is it a disservice to their physical, mental, and social development?



Research shows an obvious increase in both mental and physical health issues that relates to the amount time children spend on homework. Kids are suffering from anxiety, depression, ulcers, migraines, sleep deprivation, and weight loss, all that can be attributed to the decline in the amount of time children spend playing.

“One hundred years ago, rather than diagnosing children with attention deficit disorder, pediatricians simply prescribed more outdoor exercise. Homework was blamed for nervous conditions in children, eyestrain, stress, lack of sleep, and other conditions,” states the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Kids who spend a large amount of after-school time on homework don’t necessarily benefit from the extra work. Stephanie Donald-Pressman of The New England Center for Pediatric Psychology shares: ”The data shows that homework over this level is not only not beneficial to children's grades or GPA, but there's really a plethora of evidence that it's detrimental to their attitude about school, their grades, their self-confidence, their social skills and their quality of life."

When children spend multiple hours on homework after school, they're apt to miss out on playing with friends and family activities and have less time for extra curricular activities, which in turn results in less physical activity each day. Complex at-home projects can often require parental assistance and often computer work. Too much time spent on computer screens directly before bed actually makes falling asleep more difficult, which in turn leads to being tired at school, less attentive, and less engaged in their lessons.  


Child psychotherapist Katie Hurley emphasizes the importance of play: “We are conditioned to believe that pen, plus paper, plus books equals learning. Truth is play equals learning.

An article in the The Atlantic written by an American educator teaching abroad describes the Finnish tradition of giving school children frequent breaks—15 minutes for every 45 minutes spent in the classroom. While the American teacher first viewed the practice as excessive, he began to see the benefits. Freedom from structure allows the children to recharge, and when they return to the classroom, they’re more attentive. “It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.”

Children don’t need worksheets to apply lessons they’ve learned in school. When they spend time outside running around, engaging with other children, they learn social skills like problem-solving and decision-making, co-operation, helping to enhance their social-emotional development. Play is beneficial to teenagers, too, helping to develop independence and perseverance.

Play offers children a break from structure. It gives them opportunities to apply their skills on their own terms, to make decisions, experience the consequences, and learn from their choices. Play is their homework, essential in cultivating creativity, in growing strong and thoughtful minds. A better balance of homework and play should be stuck in an effort to most effectively educate our children--to help them grow into well-rounded, intuitive, inquisitive, and thoughtful adults. 

How much time does your child spend doing homework each day? Do you think it’s a fair amount? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.


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