children need play
June 19, 2014

Less Structured Time Helps Kids Meet Their Own Goals, Gain Better Executive Functions

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

The current era of parenting centers around the scheduled play date, filling the calendar with soccer practices and music lessons and regimenting a home calendar that restricts leisure activities like computer use and television viewing in favor of strictly timed homework and study sessions. Sure, this may be an exaggeration of how many reading this actually parent. But for too many, this example is not too dissimilar to their own daily schedule. And new research says it may be doing a huge disservice to the cognitive development of their child.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder claim that the child who is allowed to fill their day with fewer structured activities is better able to set their own goals and take actions to meet those goals than their counterparts whose days are filled to the brim with structured activities. Results of the study, published online in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, state that children who participate in more structured activities end up suffering from a diminished capacity for executive function.

According to CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience professor Yuko Munakata, senior author of the study, “Executive function is extremely important for children. It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification.” She continued, “Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.”

This study represents one of the first to address scientifically the question of how an increase in scheduled, formal activities may play a negative role in the development of children's brains.

In an unrelated study recently reported on here at redOrbit, a correlation between formal music training as a child and improved executive function was made by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital. Oddly, Munakata and team's study identifies music lessons as a structured activity that could ultimately be detrimental to the development of executive function. Of course their study focuses on overall quantity of structured activities rather than specific structured activities.

There was a furor in the media just a few years ago when the “Tiger Mom” explained how her parenting style was what would produce a successful adulthood for your child. Still others advocated a more hands-off approach to parenting, allowing your child to learn and explore on their own. As Munakata notes, however, until this study there was little scientific evidence to support claims on either side of the debate.

“There are societally important questions that come up quite often in social commentary and casual conversations among parents,” stated lead author and CU-Boulder doctoral student, Jane Barker. “So, it's important to conduct research in this area, even if the questions are messy and not easy to investigate.”

Parents of a cohort of 70 6-year-olds were asked to track and record their child's activities for the period of one week. Using existing time-use classifications widely used in scientific literature by economists, the team then categorized the activities of all of their participants as being either more or less structured.

“These were the best and most rigorous classifications we could find,” Barker pointed out. “They still fail to capture the degree of structure within specific activities, but we thought that was the best starting point because we wanted to connect with prior work.”

Structured activities would include things like chores, physical lessons, non-physical lessons and religious activities. On the other hand, less-structured activities included free play alone or with others, social outings, sightseeing, reading and media time. Still other activities didn't fit in either category. Sleeping, eating meals, attending school and commuting were considered neither structured nor unstructured.

Many of the existing time-use categories might not reflect the actual amount of structure in a given activity. For this reason, the team engaged in several rounds of recalculation after removing categories that came into question.

Each of the 70 participant children were then evaluated for self-directed executive function by being given a commonly used verbal fluency test.

Even with the reclassification and removal of certain of the time-use categories, the findings held true that the more time a child was engaged in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive function. Unfortunately for the child engaged in multiple structured activities, this meant their own self-directed executive function was poorer than their counterparts.

Munakata, conceding the study will need to be replicated stated, “This isn't perfect, but it's a first step. Our results are really suggestive and intriguing.” She continued, “Now we'll see if it holds up as we push forward and try to get more information.”

In considering a longitudinal study aimed at following participants over time, the researchers emphasize these most recent results are correlative in nature between time use and self-directed executive function. Their data does not prove that the change in self-directed executive function was caused by the amount of structured or unstructured time in a child's schedule. A longer term study will begin to identify and answer the question of cause.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was co-authored by undergraduate alumnus Andrei Semenov, doctoral student Laura Michaelson and professional research assistant Lindsey Provan, all from CU-Boulder, and Hannah Snyder, a former CU-Boulder doctoral student and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Denver.