School is out for the summer in most places, but instead of having the freedom to roam the neighborhood making up games, many kids will be packed away to more structured activities. Researchers are increasingly finding that keeping kids busy in pre-scheduled activities doesn’t give them enough time for the important experience of choosing their own activities. In an Atlantic article Jessica Lahey explains how free play improves kids’ cognitive functioning.
“The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 60 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in ‘less structured,’ spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and ‘structured’ activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control. It’s worth noting that when classifying activities as ‘less structured’ or ‘structured,’ the authors deemed all child-initiated activities as ‘less-structured,’ while all adult-led activities were ‘structured.'”
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.