The less structure the better when it comes to children, a new study says. The research, conducted by the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that kids who read and played outside were more equipped to meet their goals later on without their parents.

"Executive function is extremely important for children," said Professor Yuko Munakata, senior author of the new study, in a press release. "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. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth, and criminality, years and even decades later."

The study was intended to gain a better understanding of how an increase in scheduled or formal activities may affect the way children’s brains develop.  For the study, the parents of 70 children, age 6, recorded their child’s daily activities. The scientists categorized their activities as either structured or less structured, with the structured activities including chores, physical lessons, non-physical lessons, and religious activities. Less-structured activities included playing alone and with others, social outings, and sightseeing. Sleeping, eating, and going to school weren't counted in either category.  

“These were the best and the most rigorous classifications we could find," Barker said. "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 this with prior work.”

They found interesting results. Children who spent more time participating in less-structured activities improved their ability to self-direct themselves.  Those who were more structured had lower measures of self-direction, making them more likely to rely on parents than use their own problem solving skills to acheive goals. Still, scientists have more work to partake in if they want to understand how structure impacts a child’s ability to do things for his or herself.  “This isn’t perfect, but it’s a first step,” Munakata said.  “Our results are really suggestive and intriguing.  Now we’ll see if it holds up as we push forward and try to get more information.”

This research doesn’t say children can’t have piano lessons or do daily chores, but it does say kids need to be active and should participate in fun less restricted activities every now and then. Now that summer is here, children can enjoy the weather and keep their minds and bodiesactive and creative.  The zoo or reading an interesting book in the park are both great choices.

 

Source: Barker J, Semenov A, Michaelson A, Provan L, Snyder H, Munakata Y. Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.