Guest blogging at orgtheory this month- First post on the afterschool industry

Please check out my first post over at orgtheory– on the back-to-school/afterschool industry.

If you’re a parent you’ve likely spent a lot of time lately preparing for the start of the school year.  Pictures on the front porch of the house with child in first-day-of-school attire (posted to Facebook, of course)? Check. School supplies purchased featuring some sort of Disney/Nickelodeon character? Double Check. Signed child up for a plethora of enrichment afterschool activities after being deluged with ads and then feeling guilty because every other child your child’s age seems to be enrolled? Check Plus.

Today it’s not just classroom instruction that creates so much cultural and social capital in childhood.  The out-of-school hours are a huge source of capital-building as well (what I call “competitive kid capital” in my work on elementary school-age kids involved in the competitive afterschool activities of chess, dance, and soccer).  And these afterschool hours are not only the source of capital for kids, they are also the source of very real economic capital for many adults.  For many teachers and coaches these afterschool activities are the basis of their livelihoods.  In particular, they make a living by both creating competitive kid capital and sustaining a base of families who believe that kid capital is essential to future success.

Behind the culturally celebrated veil of competition then is an elaborate infrastructure and industry that organizes, supports, and promotes organized children’s activities, and in turn shapes the daily lives of many American families.  There is a world of childhood activities organized to profit from parents who are concerned about their children’s futures.  Different sets of individuals, organizations, and businesses play a role in producing child competitors and winners, just as it takes an “art world” to create an artist or a piece of art (a la Becker).


We should think of those who run organizations related to children’s afterschool activities as entrepreneurs (note that they are usually part of the formal economy, but can be part of the informal economy as well).  These entrepreneurs are surrounded by constellations of other entrepreneurs who charge for additional services—like those who sell clothing and shoes needed to participate in an activity, or publish magazines and books about the activities.  I was particularly struck by this when I attended a State Soccer Expo and saw vendors selling products I had not previously considered vital to the travel soccer enterprise. For example, there was a booth for a company that sold the paint used to paint the lines on soccer fields. Another booth featured a business specializing in cookies, popcorn, and other snacks, which can then be sold by teams, at a marked up price, as part of fundraising efforts.  Another sold special headbands meant to help prevent concussions.  Clearly, such products are only sometimes necessary.  But producers, who need to make money, advertise that the products will make participation more convenient, or improve a child’s performance, thus making a purchase “required.”  Other products, like the headbands, are successful by preying on parental concerns about their children’s safety.

Because parents are willing to invest a lot of money in these activities, there is a lot of money to be made.  Profits are high because prices are high; teachers and coaches can charge a lot since there are often not many competitors in their areas of expertise, which would help keep prices down.  While some parents express discomfort that some adults are “making a living off of” their children (childhood is supposed to be a sacred time, after all), they still pay up for fear of their child being “left behind.”

Notably, the funeral industry and some industries associated with children (like preschool) are regulated in an attempt to limit exploitation of a vulnerable population.  What is problematic is that children’s after-school activities have become so commodified, with little to no regulation of their practices.  How much are you willing to spend on the “art world” surrounding your child’s afterschool life?



  1. Nice post, though I would conjecture that the prices are high not because of insufficient competition, but because parents want to pay a premium in order to believe they are getting the very best for their kids. Cost cutting on private lacrosse lessons? Perish the thought!


    September 3, 2011 at 12:08 am Edit

    Bob- That is a very good point. Though I believe it might only apply to “privates.” Parents I met often seemed to brag, “Our [chess] coach charges $150 an hour,” but they seriously complained when a group lesson cost anywhere close to that, even spread over several weeks. Dance parents in particular complained about the cost of tuition for regular instruction, but would gladly pay extra for private instruction time. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it’s actually very helpful! Thanks.


    September 3, 2011 at 12:55 am Edit

    Let me add that part of what’s going on for kids is the retreat of the public sector. My kid’s middle school has no after school sports, for example…but you can get to participate on a club team for a fee. (And high school sports–and plays and clubs–all come with their own fees, even when hosted by the public school.) There are numerous math tutoring centers in my town, which seem to operate as a cartel regarding fees. But their market comes from parents anxious about the kids’ math comprehension, an anxiety stoked by a raising bar for accomplishment and less time for actual instruction in schools. Primary school classes have enrollments in the low-to-mid thirties; many kids can’t get enough instruction or help at school.
    In other affluent communities–in other states or times–smaller classes afford kids more individual instructional time, and afterschool activities (sports and clubs) are basically free to the parent, subsidized by the school district.

    David S. Meyer

    September 3, 2011 at 2:53 pm Edit

    David- You are 100% correct on both counts. What’s interesting is that 100 years ago there was no pay-to-play market and most activities were focused on low-income youths. That trend has now completely reversed. If you’re interested I wrote a paper on this historical development, which you can read here: A better, and more updated version, is a chapter in my book, Playing to Win, which should be out soon.

    And, yes, the math afterschool scene is fascinating. I did some research at a Kumon Center, which I also wrote about in a journal article in Childhood ( I’m working on another piece about the various afterschool math enrichment options now. I suspect that the Tiger Mom controversy will actually UP enrollments for this fall. Many centers used to be populated mainly by Asian, Indian, and Russian immigrant parents, even in affluent suburbs. The ways in which that composition may change in the coming years is of great interest to me.


    September 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm Edit

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