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Health & Parenting

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Kids on Tight Schedules May Lose Out, Study Says

Study shows having more free time teaches children how to plan, solve problems and make decisions


The researchers asked the parents of 70 kids who were 6 years old to record their children's daily activities for a week. The team then used time-use classification methods to record the degree to which the children's time was committed to structured or nonstructured activities. For example, structured activities included lessons, sports and chores, while nonstructured activities included such things as free play and reading.

The children were assessed for self-directed function with a test that measures how well children go about reaching a goal. Munakata said the children were asked to name as many animals as they could in a minute. Those who organized their answers into groups (like zoo animals, marine mammals, farm animals) tended to be able to name more, which is considered a sign of greater executive function, she explained.

The researchers also weighed factors such as a child's vocabulary, household income, gender and culture in their analysis of the data.

The researchers focused on 6-year-olds because children at that age are more likely to have some unstructured activities, Munakata explained.

Munakata said there were limitations to the study. While the researchers were able to show an association between the degree of structure in a child's lifestyle and the development of executive function, they could not say whether the way children spend their time predicts the degree of executive function or whether it might be the other way around, she explained. Also, the study could not prove a cause-and-effect link.

It is possible the categories the researchers used may have underestimated or overestimated the amount of structure associated with activities.

Martinez said it seems logical that having less structured time would allow kids to enhance their executive function. "There is a certain pressure to perform in all these activities, and stress impedes [the development of] executive function," she explained.

"There could be a benefit to having more free time," Munakata said. "Kids may be developing broader life skills that could be really important for them, especially as they get increasingly independent. These findings suggest it may be OK if the kids have some time when they're obviously not working toward some goal."

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