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Report says kids have too much unstructured time on their hands
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U of M President Robert Bruininks says kids who spend their free time more constructively are better prepared for a productive life. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
What are our kids doing tonight? A report out Thursday by a panel appointed by University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks indicates many school-age children don't take advantage of positive, structured activities during off-school hours. The researchers and others with the Commission on Out-of-School-Time say steering more kids toward productive activities is an important goal for improving the state.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Bruininks formed the commission 18 months ago. He says what school kids do after school, on weekends and during summer vacation does not directly involve the University of Minnesota. But he says kids who spend their free time more constructively are better prepared for a productive life.

"It provides the opportunity to get connected with caring and responsible adults," says Bruininks. "It provides the opportunity to develop and refine your competencies, and it really gives you an enormous opportunity to give something back."

Bruininks says he hopes the goals and ideas in the report gain momentum and can reach into the places where they do the most good.

"I've always felt, and feel very strongly, that a society that fails to invest in its own children is making a conscious decision to compromise its own future. So this is all about securing the future of Minnesota," says Bruininks.

The report calls for $12 million to start with, which officials say represents roughly $1 per month for every child in Minnesota. The funding would be split three ways among government sources, private donors and the families whose kids benefit.

The report uses a broad definition of productive activities -- everything from regularly reading a book to recreational sports. But one study mentioned in the report finds half of kids don't actually do any of these things. They instead watch TV or play video games, or hang out with other kids.

Dale Blyth is U of M's Associate Dean of Youth Development and one of the report's coordinators. He says the idea is not to muscle kids into something they don't want to do.

I feel very strongly that a society that fails to invest in its own children is making a conscious decision to compromise its own future.
- U of M President Robert Bruininks

"The commission's vision is that every young person chooses to become engaged. Not that they're forced to become engaged, not that they have to be in a structured activity, but that we have such a rich variety of activities and opportunities in our community that young people will eagerly choose to become engaged, and contribute and learn during those non-school hours," says Blyth.

Another of the commissioners, IBM dxecutive Valerie Pace, points out the time a child has outside of the classroom every year amounts to a full time job.

"It's very prescriptive and increasingly measured, what happens during the academic time of students today. But when you look at the 2,000 hours of free time they have, we're not doing as well as we could," says Pace.

While the report points out the need for more kids to move in a positive direction, it doesn't prescribe a specific path. Delroy Calhoun of the Loring-Nicollet Bethlehem Community Centers in Minneapolis says the solution is not merely to build soccer fields and develop programs.

"it's not a place to go. It's an attitude. It's an environment. It's one that engages them," says Calhoun. "It's one that recognizes -- and this is for us -- that we all have something to contribute to the healthy development of our youth."

The commission sets the goal of increasing youth activity to 80 percent of kids by 2010, and then up to 100 percent of kids in 2020.

Willmar Mayor Les Heitke says young people themselves can help reach that goal.

"Whether it's the chess program at the local library or woodcarving or teaching guitar, whatever it is," says Heitke. "We need to allow those youth who have wonderful talents to step forward and help build the communities that we live in, that we want to make better and stronger and more vibrant."

The participants all say reaching the goals depends on cooperation among a vast array of resources. Panelist Peter Benson of the Minneapolis nonprofit Search Institute says the effort can only gain momentum if all the interested parties come together with what he calls a big and harmonious voice.

"We're all tired of short-term investments that stop after some place decides that something else is more important. We need to build this is a sustainable way," says Benson.

The report will be turned over to the newly formed Minnesota Out-of-School Time Partnership, which includes several public and private organizations dedicated to youth development.

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