Nine-year-olds take part in out-of-school activities like sport and cultural pursuits less often than ten years ago

New research, published by the ESRI and produced in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth (DCEDIY), looks at how the lives of nine-year-olds have changed over a decade in terms of their relationships with family and friends, their pastimes and their school experiences. The report draws on data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, comparing nine-year-olds in 2007/8 and 2017/18 (Cohorts ’98 and ’08), a period of considerable social and policy change.

Family changes

  • The findings show a marked shift in the profile of children and their families. Parents are more likely to have degrees (increasing from 26% to 39%), families are more linguistically and culturally diverse, and more children are reported to have illnesses or disabilities (increasing from 11% to 24%).
  • Mothers and fathers report greater closeness to their children over time, but mothers also report increased conflict. The majority of children report being very close to their mothers and fathers but this is lower for the younger cohort: declining from 86% to 80% for mothers and 83% to 77% for fathers.
  • Eating together as a family every day has become less common, declining from 72% to 67%.


  • Nine-year-olds are broadly positive about school, with an increase over time in the proportion always liking it (from 27% to 33%), but attitudes to school subjects, including reading and Maths, remain largely unchanged.
  • Nine-year-olds typically have two or three close friends, but the numbers with a larger network of six or more friends has increased over time (from 17% to 25%).
  • Around a quarter see their friends outside school almost every day and this has stayed stable over time. Changes are found in children’s pastimes, with a decline in those taking part in sports (from 44% to 34% playing sport almost every day) and cultural activities (such as music or dance lessons – from 47% to 44%).
  • A significant increase was found in the proportion of nine-year-olds who have their own mobile phone (from 44% to 54%). There is a marked shift in the amount of time watching television towards time on other digital devices. Those spending more time watching TV and using computers are less likely to engage in sports, reading for pleasure and cultural pursuits. Owning a mobile phone is associated with less time reading and lower levels of involvement in cultural activities.

Gender differences

The social worlds of nine-year-olds are quite different for girls and boys and these gender differences persist over time. Girls have closer and less conflictual relations with their parents than boys but have smaller friendship groups and see their friends less often. They are more likely to read for pleasure and engage in cultural activities but less likely to take part in sports. They also spend less time on digital devices than boys. They are more positive about school overall but less positive about Maths, and gender differences in attitudes to Maths widen over time.

Socio-economic situation

Children’s lives are strongly influenced by the socio-economic situation of their families. More parent-child conflict is found and children tend to have smaller friendship groups where families are under financial strain. Children from more advantaged families are more likely to be involved in sports and this social gap widens over time. Social background differences in reading for pleasure become more pronounced over time, with a decline in daily reading for all children except those with graduate parents.

Policy implications

The findings have significant implications for policy. Gender and social background differences in children’s activities emerge early, suggesting the importance of early years provision in providing access to a variety of engaging activities for girls and boys and across all social groups. Schools can play an important role in encouraging physical exercise among children, but the findings also highlight the need for community-based facilities, given the constraints for small schools in provision of extracurricular sports. Ongoing revision of the primary curriculum offers the potential to address gender and social background differences in attitudes to Maths, though continuous professional development will be important in implementing curricular change.

Emer Smyth, author of the report said: ‘There are concerning trends in children’s involvement in sports, cultural pursuits and reading, activities that enhance their development. Subsidised provision of sports and cultural activities for more disadvantaged groups could help encourage participation. Continued efforts on the part of schools and libraries will be crucial in trying to reverse the decline in reading for pleasure found among many groups of children.’

Launching the report, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth, Dr Roderic O’Gorman, T.D., said: “This is an important report which makes great use of data from the Growing Up in Ireland Study to show the changing social lives of young 9-year-old children over a decade.  The report’s finding that the gender and social background differences in children’s activities emerge early and tend to persist suggests the importance of early learning and care in providing access to a variety of engaging activities for girls and boys across all social groups. A landmark €1.025 billion in funding was made available under Budget 2023 for early learning and care and school-aged childcare. This will bring transformative change to this vital sector and ensure high quality early learning and care that is affordable, accessible and inclusive.

Cultural Initiatives, such as My Little Library, should also make a difference. This initiative offers a book bag with books and resources to every 4- and 5-year-old starting school with the aim to encourage children to read for pleasure and are part of a wider government drive towards fostering a love of books and stories among young children and on connecting those children, their families and carers to the network of libraries nationwide.”