Published: Sept. 1, 2014 By

young child swimming underwater

Free Play

Unstructured play — reading a book, wandering through the zoo, playing outside — may be good for children’s brains, says CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience professor Yuko Munakata.

Your lab looked into whether an increase in structured activities for young children, like soccer practice and piano lessons, affected the development of their brains. How did you get interested in this?

As a parent, I found myself increasingly drawn to news stories and blogs that talked about how changes in society might be fundamentally affecting how kids develop. Some stories talked about how kids might be becoming more dependent on adults to fill their time, since many are now used to adults carting them around to various activities rather than finding adventure for themselves. Lots of stories put forth strong positions that were at odds with one another: Arguing for or against “tiger moms,” “helicopter parents” or “free-range” parenting. I could see a huge difference between how I was raising my 5- and 8-year-old sons — with soccer practice, after-school and summer camps and adult-arranged play-dates — and much of what I remember from my own childhood, like roaming the neighborhood and woods behind my house, unsupervised, with my sisters or other kids.

As a scientist, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that claims about these kinds of parenting approaches often were based on little to no data.

What did you find?

We found that the more time kids spend in less structured activities, the better their abilities to set goals for themselves and figure out how to reach them on their own. On top of that, the more time kids spend in more structured activities, the worse these goal-setting abilities.

What kinds of activities did you count as more structured or less structured?

Less structured activities included things like imaginative play, reading, playing catch in the backyard, going to the library and attending parties and barbecues. In each of these activities, children have more opportunities to choose what they will do and when, relative to more structured, adult-guided activities, which include things like formal lessons such as an organized baseball practice or a violin lesson, homework and chores.

What should parents take away from this study?

The main takeaway is the way kids spend their leisure time predicts an important aspect of how they think. These findings could mean that children can benefit from spending time in less-structured activities and there are drawbacks to spending time in more-structured activities.

But this study [published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology] is just our first step, and much more work is needed before we can even start to give advice to parents. That’s because what we’ve discovered is just a correlation; we don’t know if how kids spend their time is shaping the way they think. Another possibility is that the ways children think also can shape how they spend their time. For example, kids who are more skilled at setting and reaching their own goals may prefer to spend their time in activities where they have more say in what they do and when.

Read more about structured children.

Photography © JP Danko / Stocksy United