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Less Structured Time in Children’s Daily Lives Predicts Self-directed Executive Functioning

Joeanne Hooker

September 15, 2020

I give my opinion on an interesting study that predicts good executive function through free play

This study of seventy children ages 6-7 years looked at executive function particularly self-directed executive function. The researchers were trying to find out if time spent in less-structured activities such as leisure play produced better self-directed executive function than time spend in externally-driven or adult-directed activity. The main goal of the study was to find ways to improve executive function in early childhood, particularly self-directed learning. In the real world children need many reminders. A self-directed child can do many things without those constant reminders and this has important implications for children’s academic and life skills in the future. In order to look closely at how these skills are developed, the study did three main things: they collected information from parents about the children’s typical schedule, they categorized those activities into “structured” and “less-structured” and finally, they assessed self-directed executive function with a verbal fluency test. The researchers hypothesized that self-directed executive function would improve if children were allowed to engage in more less-structured activities.
According to the researchers, executive function is planning and decision making, maintenance and manipulation of information in memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts, feeling and actions, and flexible shifting from one task to another (Barker 2014). Executive function is important for children to develop higher-level cognition including planning, decision making, memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts and flexibility in moving from one task to another (Barker et. al. 2014). Independence in tasks, goal setting and self-care are important for a child to develop. This is important for the development of many aspects of intelligence and leads to much better life outcomes, so educators are interested in how executive function develops. The study has a lot of important things to say about cognitive development, which begins in infancy and grows throughout a child’s life.
The difference between self-directed learning and externally-driven learning is important.
In externally-driven learning adults are guiding children’s learning and behavior. There are specific things a child needs to learn in order to have strong executive function and the study assessed these skills. Tasks such as when children are given sequences of spoken words and they have to repeat them back in forward or backwards order were in the assessment. A verbal fluency task asked children to come up with many words surrounding a particular category, for example animals. This requires children to be flexible and to switch strategies to come up with more words, which is quite demanding cognitively. Those children with good self-directed executive function could do this task well. Also, the ability to change tasks in response to an environmental demand was an important part of the assessment. These are usually taught to children by adults especially in programs that target Executive Function like Tools of the Mind and Montessori. One program (Tools of the Mind) is the Vygotsy approach that strongly uses contextualized dramatic role play as its core curriculum content (Bodrova & Leong 2005) and the other program (Montessori) is the approach of Dr Maria Montessori. Both of these programs do excellent work in the development of executive function. In some aspects the two programs are alike in that they give children choices, the “play” is somewhat structured for optimal learning and they are quite child-driven. Where the two programs diverge would be in the attitude towards “make believe play” that is an important part of the Vygotsky program but either not so important or non-existent in Montessori which leans on the use of specialized educational materials (Lillard & Else-Quest 2006). Both programs strongly foster social learning and emotional self-regulation although they go about the training of those things differently. Both of these program would be categorized as structured programs.
There is a lot of work to define and refine the concept of structured and less-structured play or leisure activities, since the term “less-structured” is inherently vague and this is what the researchers wished to study. They chose activities such as free play, family outings, drawing and media time as less-structured whereas structured activity would be piano lessons and soccer practice. Indeed, this was a major concern of the researchers, because there seems to be a wide variability of activities that construct less directed activity. Also, some of the activities used in the study have a wide variety of adult influence, for example, a trip to the zoo might for some families be quite directive while for others they may allow their child more freedom to explore. This makes the category hard to standardize. But despite this the hypothesis held true even when they dropped the hard-to-categorize activities. It is interesting to note that children with better self-directed executive function engaged in more self-directed activity but children with less-developed self-directed executive function do better with external adult-driven tasks. The question begs then, do some schools not encourage free-play and drop activities like recess because they don’t want to have children with strong self-directed executive functioning so they will be more docile and directed by their teachers? Indeed, this might make the teacher’s job a little easier even as it creates students who grow into adults that cannot do and think for themselves. Therefore a lot of work needs to happen to ensure this does not happen for we need our children to grow into adults who have strong executive function.
The study’s hypothesis held true: that generally the more time spent in less-structured activities, the better the children performed in the verbal fluency test. There were specific types of less structured activities that were better for developing self-directed executive function such as social events with family and outings. Interestingly, play was only marginally predictive of good outcomes. This might be because free-play by its inherent nature not goal-oriented. Some preschool programs like to incorporate “structured free-play” that is, play which has adult setting goals around the play. This may or may help children develop self-directed executive functioning because it is externally driven, but it helps generally in developing executive function overall.
In this age of over-structuring of young children’s time this study shows how important it is for children to develop good executive function, but even more importantly to be self-directed. We want children to become independent thinking adults thinking. There are many ways to accomplish this, but it seems that this study pinpoints which types of activities accomplish these goals the best. Free-flowing un-directed play may not be the best, neither is adult-directed activity, to develop the skills of self-direction. Rather, it seems that a wide, interesting range un-directed leisure activities (play, unsupervised practice of skills, drawing, reading, social outings) is the best way to help young children develop self-directed executive function and grow up to be those independent-thinking adults we want them to be.

Barker, Jane E., Semenov, Andrei D., Michaelson, L., Provan, Lindsay S., Snyder, H. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive function. Frontiers in Psychology vol 5:593. DOI:10 3389/fpsyg.2014.00593
Bodrova, E., Leong, D. (2005). High quality preschool programs: what would Vygotsky say? Early Education and Development16,4.
Lillard, A., Else-Quest, N. (2006). Evaluating montessori education. Science 313,1893-1894 DOI:10.1126/science.1132362

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