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Benefits of Self-Directed Time

The Benefits of Self-Directed Time
By Wendy Priesnitz

One of the criticisms of life learning is that kids need structure of the sort found in schools to learn how to function in the “real world.” Of course, we all know that school is not the real world and that learning without school doesn’t preclude structure.

But sometimes, our trust in the principle that kids know what’s best for themselves can wear a bit thin. If that happens, we can take comfort in a psychological study released in 2014. It found that children with less-structured time who spend more time engaged in more open-ended, free-flowing activities are likely to show more “self-directed executive functioning.” (The converse was found to be true too: Children in more structured activities displayed lower executive functioning abilities.)

What exactly is “executive function?” you ask. Well, here is how the authors of the study (published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in June, 2014) describe it:

“Why do young children often forget (or outright refuse) to put on a coat before leaving the house on a snowy day? The choice to put on a jacket may seem frustratingly obvious to parents and older siblings, but this simple decision arises from a surprisingly complex interplay of behaviors. Children must keep in mind a goal (staying warm and dry) that is not yet relevant in the comfort of a warm house. They must inhibit the urge to proceed with a regular sequence of tasks (put on socks and shoes and head out the door), and instead modify their routine to include something new (pulling a coat from the closet). Unless someone intervenes, this change in the status quo must be accomplished without any external reminders (a visible coat, or a well-timed reminder from a caregiver). To accomplish each of these tasks, children must engage executive functions (EFs), the cognitive control processes that regulate thought and action in support of goal-directed behavior. EFs develop dramatically during childhood, and support a number of higher-level cognitive processes, including planning and decision-making, maintenance and manipulation of information in memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and actions, and flexible shifting from one task to another.”

Not only does executive function help kids to manage behavior (like a self-directed child putting on a coat just before going outside without being told to do), but previous research has shown that it also predicts future outcomes such as academic performance, health, wealth, and criminality.

There is a growing body of research into adult-directed, structured programs and activities (such as are found in most Montessori classrooms) designed to improve children’s executive functioning. However, in this study, doctoral and undergraduate researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wondered if children’s self-directed EFs might benefit from participation in less structured activities, where children, rather than adults, choose what they will do and when. “Less-structured activities” included free play, family and social events, reading, drawing, and media time.

Researchers followed seventy six- and seven-year-old children, measuring their activities using a well-established verbal fluency test. A pre-determined classification system categorized activities as physical or non-physical, structured and unstructured. They found that “children who spent more time in less-structured activities displayed better self-directed control, even after controlling for age, verbal ability, and household income.”

The authors also wrote:

“These findings represent the first demonstration that time spent in a broad range of less-structured activities outside of formal schooling predicts goal-directed behaviors not explicitly specified by an adult, and that more time spent in structured activities predicts poorer such goal-directed behavior… Less- structured time may uniquely support the development of self-directed control by affording children with … practice in carrying out goal-directed actions using internal cues and reminders. That is, less-structured activities may give children more self-directed opportunities. From this perspective, structured time could slow the development of self-directed control, since adults in such scenarios can provide external cues and reminders about what should happen, and when.”

One important caveat is that this study merely proves correlation, not causation, which will be the subject of future research. But it does provide life learners with some assurance that structure is not all it’s made out to be.  

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's editor.

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