Playtime May Be More Important to Development Than Parents Thought

Professor Yuko Munakata of the University of Colorado is a proponent of developing “executive function” in children. A professor of psychology and neuroscience, Munakata created a study to start the ball rolling toward an understanding of whether structured time or flexible time for children has an impact on their ability to “manage themselves”.

Mr. Munakata said a debate about parenting philosophy – with extremely rigid ‘tiger moms’ on one side and more elastic ‘free-range’ parents on the other – has played out in the media and on parenting blogs in recent years. But there is little scientific evidence to support claims made by either group.

Steve Hopkins, writing for the Daily Mail, says this is a subject area much discussed and debated by parents, and Munakata decided research needed to begin even if the research was difficult to obtain and quantify.

The study included the daily activities of 70 6 year-olds, recorded by their parents.  The parents were to categorize the activity as more structured or less structured.  Free play alone or with others, social outings, sightseeing, reading, and media time were considered less structured.  Chores, physical lessons, non-physical lessons, and religious activities were considered structured activities.

When the children were evaluated to discover how well they managed themselves, the results showed that the more time spent in unstructured activities, the better they were at executive functioning.  Munakata says this is just the first step, but that the study is “suggestive and intriguing”.

Munakata said, “Executive function is extremely important for children. 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. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.”

According to Sarah Kuta, reporting for the Boulder Daily Camera, kids with less-structured activities are also better at setting and completing goals.  The study was published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology last week online.  Doctoral student Jane Barker said that policy makers and parents are really interested in this question.  Is play important to children?

The ability to set goals and complete them is described as “self-directed executive function.” This is what allows a person to connect past experiences with present actions, like a child putting on a coat to go outside on a cold day without being told to do so by a parent.  One way this skill was measured was by using a verbal fluency task that asked children to decide on their own when to switch to the next category.

At this point, it is still unclear if children who gravitate toward less-structured activities have better executive functioning, or if participating in less structured activities leads to better executive functioning.  Barker says this is just one piece of the puzzle.
In this age, parents spend much time setting up play dates, enrolling in lessons, and joining soccer or gymnastics teams for their children.  Often, their children are as busy each day as they are.  A study recently described on Red Orbit says that scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital have found a link between musical training and executive brain function, according to Alan McStravick. Munakata’s study, however, focuses on overall quantity of structured activities, not specific structured activities.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was co-authored by undergraduate alumnus Andrei Semenov, doctoral student Laura Michaelson and professional research assistant Lindsey Provan, all from CU-Boulder, and Hannah Snyder, a former CU-Boulder doctoral student and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Denver, reported McStravick.
06 24, 2014
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