A study by psychologists at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver examines the impact of structured and unstructured time on the executive functions in children.
Executive functions (EFs) in childhood predict important life outcomes. Research over the last ten years has shown that EFs are predictors of academic success and school readiness and that children with worse EF go on to have poorer outcomes in health, finances and social relationships.
EFs develop during childhood and enable a number of high level cognitive functions such as planning and decision making, switching tasks, self-control and handling unwanted thoughts, feelings and so on and managing information in memory.
The study finds that the more time children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The more structured activities they did the poorer their self-directed executive functioning.
Children who spent more time doing structured activities – anything adult directed or initiated – they get worse at working toward goals, making decisions, and regulating their behaviour. Children develop more if those activities are chosen themselves because they are able to practice different skills such as planning, decision making and working out what to do next. A child with a free afternoon might decide to read a book, then draw something, then show it to her family. This child, who has freely chosen these activities will learn more than a child who does the exact same activities but who was given instruction as to what to do.
The study findings have important implications for parenting and for education.
As advocates of self-directed education point out, it isn’t only the activity itself which has ‘value’. The very act of children being able to choose what to do, to follow their own interests is valuable and worth fighting for.