With additional reporting by Beau Brink

There are many aspects of my more than decade-long career as a teacher that I'm proud of. My reputation for giving lots and lots of homework—sometimes over two hours' worth—is not one of them. My intentions were good: I, like their parents, didn't want my students to fall behind.

However, when I entered a doctoral program in education policy, I learned that some research suggests homework is not good for elementary school-aged kids. Not only does it fail to improve the academic performance of elementary students, but it might actually be damaging to kids' attitudes toward school, and to their physical health.

After hours spent sitting and engaging in mostly adult directed activities, children's minds and bodies need other kinds of experiences when they get home, not more academics. It's not just that homework itself has few academic benefits for little kids (and may even be harmful), it's also that homework is replacing other fun, developmentally appropriate and valuable activities—activities that help children grow into healthy, happy adults.

Who invented homework, anyway?

Modern homework was invented by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who created a compulsory school system that was meant to support the effort to unify Germany (it had originally been a set of city-states, and reached unification in 1871). For Fichte, homework was a way for students to be involved in patriotism: They attended state-sponsored schools and spent their free time doing assignments related to their state-sponsored education. It was brought to America by Horace Mann, a pioneer of public education in the United States, in the 1840s.

However, in the interim, a lot has changed in education. With time and research, educators are learning more and more about how children learn best and what kinds of work are developmentally appropriate at different ages and stages.

What does the research say about homework for kids?

While researchers think that homework is beneficial for academic achievement, the amount and type of homework makes a difference. One study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that excessive homework leaves kids stressed, sleep deprived, and lacking balance for social and family activities even when those students come from upper-middle class families and go to top-performing schools—and many students don't have those advantages.

Then there's the issue of whether homework is actually effective at changing academic outcomes. Education researchers generally agree that kids get more benefit from homework the older they get, but one 2020 Rutgers study found that homework has become less effective at reinforcing classroom learning as smartphone use has become widespread. Kids use their phones to complete their assignments and get good grades on homework, but then don't perform well on exams. On the earlier end of education, researcher John Hattie argues that homework doesn't make a difference with regard to achievement for grade school-aged students, and that parents should encourage kids to learn at home through more engaging activities (like reading books they're interested in, pursuing hobbies, and getting in physical activity).

Harris Cooper, mentioned earlier, believes that homework is effective, but it should be increased incrementally over time. He recommends the 10 minute rule: The amount of homework students receive should be 10 minutes times their grade level, so that first-graders get 10 minutes of homework, fifth-graders 50, and high school seniors get two hours, for example. Cooper also has stipulations about the kind of homework kids receive, saying, "Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading."

What can kids do instead of homework?

Spending time with family

Spending time with family
@lizaastark/Twenty20

Many parents have daily battles with their elementary-aged kids over homework, and for many it negatively affects their relationships. Instead of parents nagging their overtired kids to do homework, families can spend much more time talking together about their day. In fact, conversation is the best way for all of us—especially young children—to learn about our world and cultivate empathy.

Encouraging multigenerational relationships can also yield many lessons for kids. By spending time with Grandma and Grandpa, they can learn how other adult role models in their lives who love them handle conflict, create and negotiate rules and routines, and embrace family traditions.

Suggested activities:

  • Talking to parents
  • Helping out with dinner
  • Hanging out at grandma's
  • Reading a book together

Self care

Self care for kids
@lolodean/Twenty20

Just like adults, kids need time to take care of themselves so that they can perform well in school. And also like adults, a lot of kids don't have self-care basics in their routine.

Take sleep, for instance. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that between 25 and 50 percent of children aren't getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems in kids, including poor attention, behavior problems, academic difficulties, irritability and weight gain. But even small amounts of additional sleep can have big impacts. One study found that only 20 additional minutes of sleep can improve kids' grades.

Other self care activities benefit children, too: Reading aloud to a child helps them build their vocabulary, having a bedtime routine improves children's social and behavioral habits and having some relaxing downtime recharges their ability to pay attention and concentrate.

Suggested activities:

  • Sleep
  • Building a consistent bedtime routine
  • Cleaning their room
  • Zoning out
  • Meditation
  • Listening to classical music

Independent activities

Independent play
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Solitary activities—those that children can do on their own, without the help of adults—build kids' confidence and help them to relax. Plus, if there's an element of learning, like your child acquiring a new skill on their own, it can improve their motivation and memory in the long run.

Kids benefit in different ways from different independent activities. According to the National Literacy Trust, reading for pleasure has a greater impact on children's achievement in school than their family's economic status and not only builds vocabulary and comprehension but builds confidence. Knitting and crochet build fine motor skills, and gardening helps kids apply what they're learning in their science and math classes to the real world.

Suggested activities:

  • Independent reading
  • Working on a puzzle
  • Learning to knit
  • Conducting a science experiment
  • Planting a garden

Play

Kids play
@amyhilbrand/Twenty20

An important part of how young kids' minds develop is through free, self-directed play. According to David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children, free play is more critical now than ever, as recesses are shortened or eliminated and kids' calendars are busier than ever. "Through play," Elkind writes, "children create new learning experiences, and those self created experiences enable them to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire any other way."

There are a lot of different kinds of play: Risky play, sensory play, parallel play, constructive play, cooperative play, and more. All types of play have benefits for children, like building social skills, increasing creativity, improving problem-solving skills, and providing opportunities to explore the world in new ways. It's even good for parents: As the American Academy of Pediatrics says, "Play offers parents a wonderful opportunity to engage fully with their children."

Suggested activities:

  • Go up a slide backward
  • Dig in the dirt
  • Playing with a friend in a sandbox
  • Play dress-up
  • Create a collage
  • Play Simon Says
  • Make a fort

Physical activity

Physical activities for kids
@DelanahBanana/Twenty20

Kids who are physically active—as well as adults—have stronger hearts, lungs, and bones. They are less likely to develop cancer or be overweight and more likely to feel good about themselves. Even rough-housing can be beneficial. Rough and tumble play is not the same as aggression. It's vigorous, freeform, whole body, energetic, happy play. Kids learn decision making skills, relieve stress, improve their ability to read social cues, and enhance their cardiovascular health.

And walking the dog counts: Kids who help take care of family pets may be less anxious, less likely to develop allergies and asthma, and are more active.

Suggested activities:

  • Jumping rope
  • Wrestling with siblings
  • Riding a bike
  • Walking the dog
  • Setting up an obstacle course in your living room

Volunteering

Volunteer opportunities for kids
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Through volunteering, kids can become more grateful, empathetic, and feel more connected to the wider community. Volunteering at an animal shelter can be especially enriching for children. Even kids who don't have pets at home can benefit from being around animals. The emotional and psychological benefits of being around animals can also be found when kids care for injured animals and take on care-taking responsibilities for other people's pets.

Suggested activities:

  • Playing with animals at a shelter
  • Bringing flowers to seniors in nursing homes
  • Organizing or contributing to a toy drive
  • Picking clothes to donate to a women's shelter
  • Picking up litter in the neighborhood

Creative expression

Kids creative activities at home
@criene/Twenty20

According to the American Psychological Association, creative expression has incredible benefits for children's mental health. Various studies have found that engaging in creative expression while experiencing negative emotions like anger and sadness helps people, including children, to process those emotions healthily. It doesn't matter what kind of creative expression it is: Drawing, acting, writing, playing music and more can all build resilience along with improving kids' imaginations, fine motor skills, and communication.

Suggested activities:

  • Practice an instrument
  • Draw a picture
  • Write a story
  • Take pictures

No homework? No problem

Homework takes away from the time available to engage in endless other forms of learning, such as social, physical, and emotional, as well as rest. And in any case, the learning done in school is only one form of learning.

Our kids deserve a chance to spend all their other hours outside of school doing their most important job of all: being a kid.