Back in June, I took issue with a George Monbiot column about the ‘hothousing’ of children. His argument is that over-aspirational parents (and schools) are pushing kids too hard – and blighting their childhoods as a result.

True enough, there is more – much more – to life than homework and exams, but are British kids really being over-pressured in this regard? For the most part, the evidence is pretty thin.

Another aspect of the hothousing scare is the notion that it’s not just study that’s filling our children’s waking hours, but a back-to-back schedule of extra-curricular activities too – like music lessons and sports practice. The concern is that the poor dears don’t get a moment to themselves.

But, again, is there any hard evidence to back this up? According to Robert Pondiscio in a piece for US News and World Report, the answer is very little:

“In 2006, a trio of researchers – Joseph L. Mahoney, Angel L. Harris and Jacquelynne S. Eccles – published an extensive study based on a nationally representative longitudinal database of 5,000 families and their children, and how they spend their time. The researchers concluded there was ‘very limited empirical support for the over-scheduling hypothesis.’”

Indeed it sounds as if American kids (and I doubt their British counterparts are much different) have plenty of time for unstructured messing about:

“Mahoney and his colleagues calculated just how much time kids spend at sports games and practices, faith-based activities, doing volunteer work, and meeting the demands of afterschool programs and other obligations. The average was about five hours per week.”

This is the overall picture, but what about the extremes?

“Where are all the exhausted superkids? A mere 6 percent of U.S. teens participate in 20 hours or more of organized activities in a week…”

20 hours or more does seem a lot. If this is being imposed for the purposes of filling up a future CV then obviously things are going too far. But if a teenager is pursuing a genuine personal enthusiasm for music, sport or some other passion, then why not? Youth is surely an ideal time to chase your dreams.

As with academic endeavour, we should be more concerned for children who get too little opportunity to join in:

“Many teens – about 40 percent – spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week.”

This is where the real deprivation is:

“…participation in organized extracurricular activities is closely related (even when controlled for socioeconomic status) to a broad range of positive outcomes including children’s physical safety and psychological well-being, supportive relationships with peers and adults, higher self-esteem, and reduced alcohol and drug use, not to mention higher high school graduation rates.”

It is tempting to see organised activities as artificial and unstructured play as natural, but in fact there is something deeply weird about a society that leaves so many children to their own devices for such extended periods of time. Childhood and adolescence are vital periods of socialisation when young people should be learning how to be part of a multi-generational community. But beyond their immediate families and the school environment, we actively isolate the young from other generations.

After-school activities – especially those involving an element of community service – therefore provide a vital opportunity to bridge the gap.