Unstructured Play and Children's Development

A recent study

Posted Aug 08, 2015

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Raising children is a quite an experiment in applied philosophy. Parents have theories and their children put them to the test. Of course, by the time the results are in, so many theories have come and gone that I am not sure I know any successful parent who thinks she can explain how she did it all.

The advice we tend to be able to read is similarly limited. The journalistic trend seems to be that some aspect of parenting be newly focus upon, having been neglected. But these types of approaches seem to suggest that what our children is missing is just one thing: we need to make children less spoiled, or we need to make them practice, and so on. But parenting is a matter of hitting all sorts of notes at once.

One clash between theories concerns whether, on balance, our children are better off engaging in more structured activities, learning from a teacher, or in more unstructured activities, playing with other children.

In a recent study, fully available online, we can see how psychologists approach the study of child development. In this example, externally-directed “executive (brain) function” is distinguished from self-directed “executive function,” and seventy children are assessed along with how often they engage in a loose list of “structured” (directed) and “unstructured” activities.

The results are not dramatic, which is in itself a good contrast to the over-promising journalism on this subject. But the authors seems happy to find support for their hypothesis: that unstructured play might be associated with signs of self-directed executive function in young children.

As study authors Jane Barker, Andrei Semenov, Laura Michaelson, Lindsay Provan,  Hannah R. Snyder and Yuko Munakata write: 

Our findings offer support for a relationship between the time children spend in less-structured and structured activities and the development of self-directed executive function. When considering our entire participant sample, children who spent more time in less-structured activities displayed better self-directed control, even after controlling for age, verbal ability, and household income. By contrast, children who spent more time in structured activities exhibited poorer self-directed EF, controlling for the same factors. The observed relationships between time use and EF ability were specific to self-directed EF, as neither structured nor less-structured time related to performance on externally-driven EF measures. These findings represent the first demonstration that time spent in a broad range of less-structured activities outside of formal schooling predicts goal-directed behaviors not explicitly specified by an adult, and that more time spent in structured activities predicts poorer such goal-directed behavior. 

Of course, a bit paradoxically, if anything makes you trust you own observations as a parent, it might be careful review of the methods psychologists have to use in studying children.

When children play with each other in the woods, do they argue, plan and watch out for each other? After a blissful two weeks with a bunch of children in the woods, I feel I saw this happening. An assortment of children focussed so well on governing themselves that they seem all but oblivious to the adults peeking in to check on their mud fort. I watched a boy roll down a steep hill carrying a stick and then say out loud “next time I’ll let go of the stick.” I heard another child, working assiduously at some type of building, direct another to “look after her” when a fellow four-year-old wandered off.

Studies like these do serve as a reminder, however, that we should curb any expectation for anyone input, even intense and perfect outdoor play. being all our children need. The study suggests no positive association with the kind of externally-generated executive function and unstructured play. Should we expect children emerge from playing in the woods with manners and ready to listen (ready to be “externally-directed”)? Probably not.

But joy has to be factored in, too. 

Like you would think, parenting involves striking a lot of notes, all at once.