If your July 4th plans are anything like my family’s, it’s fully loaded with lots of planned activities: parade at 10am, pool at 2pm, BBQ at 4pm, fireworks at 9pm, etc. Little time is left unstructured for the kids to, well, be independent. New research gives me pause to think, though, about whether for July 4th or otherwise I should leave some more breathing room in our schedule: Researchers found that less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts how well they will be able to self-direct to achieve goals.
The new study builds on research showing that executive functions in children are an important influence on their success later in life. The researchers, led by Jane Barker and senior scientist Yuko Munakata both at the University of Colorado, wanted to investigate how less-structured activities (think: dancing around the backyard) versus more structured ones (think: ballet class) relate to children’s executive functioning — how well they can initiate and meet goals.
In their study of 6- to 7-year-olds, the researchers found that the children’s self-directed executive functioning improved the more time they spent in less-structured activities. The opposite was true of structured activities. In addition to this important finding, the study gives some unique insight into the types of activities in which children participate on a regular basis — as the researchers analyzed children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules.
CNS: How did you personally become interested in this topic?
Michaelson: We think this is a topic that many adults are interested in because the structure of children’s daily lives has changed over time. This is definitely something I have noticed personally. When I was growing up, every day after school I would ride my bike around the neighborhood with my friends until dinnertime. We would go to the basketball courts and play horse, or try to catch tadpoles in the creek, or any number of other things we felt like doing. Today, parents tend to be more involved in structuring kids’ activities — kids are being carted from play dates to adult-run practices. Many articles in popular media comment on these changes, but no studies that we know of have investigated relationships between child time use and developing cognition.
CNS: How do you define executive functions?
Michaelson: Executive functions are the skills that people use to coordinate complex tasks and meet goals. The construct of executive functioning is broad and multi-dimensional, and includes higher-level skills such as planning, decision-making, maintaining information in working memory, and flexibly shifting between tasks. Self-directed executive functioning, the focus of this study, is particularly cognitively demanding — it requires figuring out how and when to employ executive functions to achieve a certain goal. This is in contrast to other forms of executive functioning, where information about how to achieve goals might be available from cues in the environment. Children use executive functions when they plan a multi-step school science project, focus in on reading a book in a noisy living room, or stop themselves from yelling out an answer in class and raise a hand instead.
CNS: How do executive functions predict outcomes for children later in life?
Michaelson: Early ability in executive functions predicts school readiness in preschoolers as well as academic performance following school entry. Also, other constructs associated with executive functions, such as self-regulation and delay of gratification, have been linked to outcomes even later in life, including obesity during childhood, SAT scores and social competence during adolescence, and health, wealth, and criminality in adulthood.
CNS: Would you please give some examples of less-structured versus structured activities?
Michaelson: Less structured activities include things like imaginative play, reading on your own, playing catch in the backyard (outside of baseball practice), going to the library, and attending parties and barbeques. In each of these activities, children have more opportunities to choose what they will do and when, relative to structured, adult-imposed activities, like homework, chores, and formal lessons (an organized baseball practice or violin lesson). When developing these classifications for our study, we relied on prior studies of child leisure time use, so there is some basis in the existing literature for classifying activities the way we did.
CNS: Why did you choose to specifically study 6- to 7-year-olds?
Michaelson: Six to seven is an age where children are starting to show some self-direction, but still have much room to improve. It’s also an interesting age because children tend to have both structured and less-structured time—outside of school, their days are pretty open for lots of different activities, though their less-structured time may be getting harder to protect.
CNS: How did the effects of less-structured time change with age in your study? Why do you think those changes occurred?
Michaelson: We found that time spent in less-structured activities predicted better self-directed control in all but the oldest children in our sample. The ways in which children spent their less-structured time changed with age, which may be why we saw those relationships change in our study.
Specifically, we found that older children spent more of their less-structured time engaged in media and screen-based activities, which were not (in isolation) predictive of self-directed executive function. This highlights an important point—we were looking at less-structured time overall, across multiple different types of activities. The relationships might look different when focusing on specific activities.
CNS: Were you surprised by any of the results?
Michaelson: We were surprised by the strong relationship between self-directed executive functions and time spent in less-structured social activities, like group outings and parties, and play with others. Moving forward, it will be interesting to explore how social dynamics might influence developing self-direction.
CNS: What can parents do to help their children’s executive functions?
Michaelson: We are not making claims about what parents should and shouldn’t be doing based on these findings, which are correlational, and represent a first step in a broader investigation of how children’s activities relate to developing executive functions. These data are informative, but individual differences in executive function depend on a multitude of factors, including, but not limited to, time spent in less-structured activities. The benefits of less-structured time may depend upon how much time children spend in structured activities overall — which can vary widely between children. For these reasons, these early findings don’t necessarily speak to what parents should or should not do to help their children’s executive function.
CNS: Does your research have any insights/lessons to offer related to young children and screen time?
Michaelson: We are not making specific claims about screen time or any other activity, because the benefits of any one type of activity may depend upon a variety of other factors.
CNS: What about recess time?
Michaelson: Based on the results of our study, it’s hard to say how recess time might relate to self-directed executive function. Recess could involve structured activities (like an adult-organized game of kickball) or child-organized, less-structured activities (like using kickballs to make a fortress in a fantasy world). But we also don’t want to focus in on the benefits associated with specific activities, since our construction of less-structured time was broad, and the development of self-directed executive function most likely depends on a number of factors.
CNS: What does your research suggest about different types of learning environments, say Montessori-style classes versus traditional classrooms?
Michaelson: The development of self-direction is emphasized in Tools of the Mind and Montessori curricula, and each of those programs incorporate self-directed activities. We do know that such programs benefit children’s externally-directed executive function, but their impact on self-directed executive function has not been tested directly.
CNS: Is it possible that children naturally better in executive function choose less-structured activities (or their parents choose them based on that skill set)? How can you test this?
Michaelson: Because our study was correlational, we don’t know whether spending time in less structured activities influences children’s developing self-directed executive functioning, or whether children’s executive functioning influences how they spend their time. Parents of more self-directed children might be more likely to put their children in less-structured activities, and vice versa. To test the directionality of these relationships, we’d need to do an experimental design—manipulate the level of structure in children’s daily lives and measure effects on self-directed executive function.
We are currently looking into opportunities to explore these questions longitudinally, and considering new ways of assessing children’s developing self-directed executive function.
–Lisa M.P. Munoz
The paper, “Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning” by Jane E. Barker, Andrei D. Semenov, Laura Michaelson, Lindsay S. Provan1, Hannah R. Snyder, and Yuko Munakata, was published in Frontiers in Psychology on June 17, 2014.