The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.
Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play, daydreaming, risk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.
Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.
This may help explain the recent rise in diagnosed ADHD cases. The structured lives of our children — including play dates, day care, and summer camp — is quite different from the mostly unscheduled days of youngsters growing up even 20 years ago. Could it be that they’re missing out on an important developmental process?
Starting at about age seven or eight I spent lots of time unsupervised by adults, although there were usually older kids around. During the summer I kept busy riding my bike, going to the library, playing with Barbie dolls, swimming at the neighborhood pool, hanging out with friends, watching TV, and doing other similar self-directed activities.
When I was a kid, virtually all time not spent in school or sleeping and eating was free play time. Nobody ever spoke of “executive function” or projected developmental improvements of any kind….