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Limiting structured activities allows kids to establish interests and self-discipline, according to a new study at the University of Colorado Boulder, one of the first of its kind.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, says that kids who spend time reading, playing or exploring nature in the absence of predetermined structure are more proactive than those whose parents pack their schedules with lessons and study sessions.
They are also better able to meet their own goals than those who are carted from one pre-organized activity to another outside of school and homework, say researchers.
According to senior author Yuko Munakata, CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience professor, over-structuring could interfere with the development of "self-directed executive function," a scientific term referring to independent, proactive thinking and decision-making.
"Executive function is extremely important for children," says Munakata. "It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification."
The study delves into a heated controversy that erupted with the 2011 publication of an article by "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," making the case for tightly structured parenting.
Despite ongoing controversy, scientific evidence in support of lax or rigid parenting styles can be lacking.
"These are societally important questions that come up quite often in social commentary and casual conversations among parents," Jane Barker, a CU-Boulder doctoral student working with Munakata and lead author of the study. "So it's important to conduct research in this area, even if the questions are messy and not easy to investigate."
In the one-week study, researchers interviewed 70 parents of six-year-old children about their scheduled daily activities and classified them using science-oriented definitions of structured time, often referred to by economists.
Barker says the definitions were selected for use in the study because they were the most rigorous ones they could find.
Sleeping, eating, school and commutes were not taken into account.
Chores, lessons and religious activities are examples of activities that fell into the structured category, whereas social outings, play time, internet surfing and reading were classified as being unstructured.
Researchers then evaluated the children using an industry-standard verbal fluency test.
The end result indicates that self-directed executive function is more prevalent in children who spend more time in unstructured activities.
"Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later," says Munakata.
Researchers involved in the study admit more work is necessary but are happy to have cut the ribbon in the area they say needs scientific attention.
Parents should by no means cancel all structured activites, for some music lessons, in particular, may in fact help improve executive brain function, according to an American study out this month.