Study suggests that kids suffer from too much structured activity

If you don’t give kids the chance to manage their time, they won’t learn how to manage their time.

Seems like common sense, right? But as we know, “common sense” is not necessarily common.

Research is now backing up the notion that young children need regular experiences organizing themselves in order to develop their “executive function”.

According to a 2014 study conducted jointly between the University of Colorado and the University of Denver, young kids who are engaged in too many structured activities may have inhibited development of this critical cognitive capacity.

Executive function refers to the ability to formulate goals, make appropriate decisions towards achieving those goals, all while regulating personal behavior. It also implies that you know how to pay attention to your environment, and how to collect and process the information you need to achieve your goals.

For a 5-year-old, executive function means you remember to put on a warm coat when you see that it’s snowing outside. For a 25-year-old, it means you remember to put aside money from your paycheck to cover your rent and groceries, and maybe even invest in an RRSP.

It’s easy to see that executive function has big implications in the lives of our kids. Indeed, research suggests that children with good executive function have better health, greater wealth, and better social relationships as adults.

But like everything in life, there needs to be a healthy balance. Depending on their age, our children may require more or less structured activity, or more or less unstructured activity.

Preschoolers need a lot of unstructured activity, free play being the primary example. Through exploration and experimentation in free play, their brains start to build the complex neural networks they will need for advanced decision making further down the road.

In contrast, teenagers benefit from having a larger proportion of structured activity. The decision-making apparatus of their brains is largely in place (in theory anyways!) and consequently they can benefit, for example, from structured teaching that introduces the standard procedure for determining the length of the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle.

Your adolescent child isn’t likely to write a symphony or engineer the space shuttle through creative, exploratory play. However, your preschooler might not develop the executive function needed to become an aerospace engineer later if there’s no time for free play in kindergarten.

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