Playtime Debate: Structured Vs. Free Time

Is structured play more beneficial than free play?
Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

(Inside Science TV) -- Zeppo Castalona is a 7-year-old who likes to explore possibilities.

"I never follow directions," explained the young Castalona. 

His mother focuses on fueling his curiosity.

"… after school is free time," said Zeppo's mother Sarah Castalona.

But today the pressure is on for kids to excel. 

"These kids are being driven to play dates instead of roaming the neighborhood looking for friends," said Yuko Munakata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The question: is structured time helping or hurting our children?

"They could be fundamentally changing in how kids think and how they develop," explained Munakata.

Now, neuroscientists are trying to find out how planned activities affect kids development.

They studied seventy 6-year-olds, looking at the kids executive function capabilities.

"You use executive function when you decide to raise your hand before blurting out an answer," said Jane Barker, a PhD student in cognitive development at UC-Boulder.

Parents were asked to record their kids' daily activities for a week. Scientists then marked the activities as either more structured or less structured.

“What we found is the more time kids spent in less structured activities, the better their abilities to set goals for themselves and figure out how to reach those goals," said Munakata.

But they found the opposite for kids who spent more time in planned activities -- those children had worse executive function skills.

Researchers now need to learn if what the children do now affects their decision-making skills later in life.

It's important to note, the researchers say their results show a correlation between time use and self-directed function, but it doesn't prove that free-time is better for children than structured time. That's what they hope to find out in future studies.

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.