Children who spend more time in less-structured activities such as playing outside or reading are better at setting goals and making decisions, according to a study by psychologists at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study, published in the journal Frontier for Psychology, revealed the importance of these activities in developing children’s self-directed executive functions, the ability to plan goals and reach them independently.
Self-directed executive functioning — or the ability to make decisions on one’s own and predict outcomes of those decisions — is a critical part of childhood development. It helps kids develop cognitive processes for achieving their goals, including decision making, manipulating information, shifting between tasks, and inhibiting unwanted feeling and actions like yelling when they’re angry.
Parents of 70 participating 6-year-olds recorded their children’s daily activities for a week for the study. The researchers then measured how much time each child spent in structured activities — chores, physical-lessons, non-physical lessons, and religious practices — versus less-structured activities such as social outings, spontaneous play, and sightseeing. Each child’s executive functions were then tested using a standard vocabulary and verbal fluency test.
The results show children who spent more time in less-structured activities demonstrated better self-directed executive function. The researchers found that less-structured activities gave children more time and opportunities to carry out goal-oriented actions.
Researchers also noted that when children were able to control how they spent their time, they were more likely to practice the process of goal-setting. For instance, a child who chooses to read a book and plans to draw a picture about the story will practice more self-directed decision-making than a child who was given instructions to do the same activity.