Free-Range Kids Better at Structuring Time & Meeting Goals, Study Says

Folks: I sometimes can’t stand how we don’t trust any ideas or instincts  unless they are backed up with some official study. However, “science-based” parenting being the obsession of our era, I am thrilled to present this study by University of Colorado-Boulder psychology and neuroscience Professor Yuko Munakata and doctoral student/lead author  Jane Barker, as reported in Science Daily, which found that:

Kids whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals, study shows

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 on either side of the discussion.

So she and Barker did a study of 70 6-year-olds, whose parents recorded their daily activities:

…The results showed that the more time children spent in less structured activities, the better their self-directed executive function. Conversely, the more time children spent in more structured activities the poorer their self-directed executive function.

….”This isn’t perfect, but it’s a first step,” said Munakata. “Our results are really suggestive and intriguing. Now we’ll see if it holds up as we push forward and try to get more information.”

The researchers emphasize that their results show a correlation between time use and self-directed executive function, but they don’t prove that the change in self-directed executive function was caused by the amount of structured or unstructured time. The team is already considering a longitudinal study, which would follow participants over time, to begin to answer the question of cause.

That will be great! If it takes scientists studying Free-Range (they actually use that phrase!) to “prove” that it makes sense for children to have some free and unsupervised time, so be it. Let the grants roll in! – L.

Free-Range play!

Free-Range play!

, , , , , , ,

23 Responses to Free-Range Kids Better at Structuring Time & Meeting Goals, Study Says

  1. John July 7, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    Very interesting study which makes lots of sense. According to organizations that work with street children around the world, it has been found that homeless children in places such as the Philippines and Thailand, etc., actually learn conflict resolution just from interacting with their friends on the street and without the aid of adults. Of course, I’m certainly not advocating that children remain homeless but this just proves that even young kids can learn social skills solely from experience.

    BTW those two boys in the picture sure look like a couple of little toughies! I’m guessing they’re in a South American country, perhaps Colombia?

  2. Reziac July 7, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    “Kids whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals, study shows”

    Rephrase: “Kids who have to manage their own time are better at managing their own time”

    Ya think??!

  3. Rebecca July 7, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Interesting that we have an increase in students being given 504 ed plans and IEP’s who have problems with “executive functioning” . It sure seems to correlate with the increase in hover parenting. I wish someone would do another study in US to see about that connection.

  4. CrazyCatLady July 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Executive functioning can also go along with ADHD and inappropriate learning expectations, not just hoovering parents. But it is interesting to see that hoovering parents plays a part.

    And honestly, parents don’t want to have IEPs or 504 plans…they wish that teachers wouldn’t keep pushing drugs on their kids or telling the kids they are bad until the parent gets a medical diagnosis just to get the teacher to let up. Most parents want the teacher to meet their kid where the kid is, not set a bar so high the kid can’t reach it. Yes, that happens too.

    I say this as a homeschooling parent with two sons with learning differences. Both have “executive function” on a report about their differences. Not that I really care. I got the report done so I could find out how to teach them better. But…a big part of why we homeschool is so that they can have more time to goof around, play, read and follow their interests.

  5. Dirk July 7, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    I totally believe and agree with the title of this one! For sure. With proper backing free range can definitely up executive functioning.

  6. Mark Davis July 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    To be fair, Lenore, much of the reason we need the whole Free-range movement is because too many people trust their “ideas and instincts” instead of listening to science, specifically statistics such as the fact that violent crime has decreased dramatically in recent decades, that child molesters are almost never strangers, etc etc. Science (and more generally, reason) is our ally.

  7. Lola July 7, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    Hey, give us a word if they’re looking for free-range kids to study, will you? Here’s a forumful of families for them to take their pick…

  8. Angela July 7, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    It amuses me that they specifically left schooling, where the average child spends a great deal of time, out of their equation. They lumped it with sleeping and eating as being neither more nor less structured.

    The study points out that some activities, like using media (watching TV vs. playing a game), could go either way and they tested taking these items out, finding that the results remained the same. I wonder what the outcome would be if they included schooling in their numbers. Maybe they are hesitant about labelling it structured while they simutaneously claim that more structure may be harmful.

  9. Sandi July 7, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    Painfully obvious.

  10. Donna July 7, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    Angela –

    They didn’t make any statement as to schooling being structured or unstructured.

    Labeling ALL of school as either structured or unstructured doesn’t work. My daughter has some of both throughout the day, even in traditional school. The amount of structure and unstructured time will be vastly different for a child attending public school versus a montessori school versus a school like Sudbury Schools even if the school day is the same length (and varying lengths are taken into account in the study). You need to either control for schooling (e.g. all children attend the same school) which negates any need to include schooling since it is identical for every child, or you need to document schooling as structured or unstructured by the minute (something parents likely can’t do), or just remove schooling from consideration altogether.

  11. JaneW July 7, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    @ Rebecca: IEPs are more common, period. And that’s not necessarily a bad think, remember that back in the day, a lot of kids just dropped out of school. There’s no way to know how many of them suffered from difficulties with executive function.

    Still, I do believe that unstructured play time is important for children.

  12. hineata July 7, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

    What about kids who over-structure their own time? Though would that count as fulfilling their own goals?

    One of mine seems to be in every school activity she can possibly cram in at the moment, as well as cooking, baking and other craft stuff at home, and then Scouts. And she has the cheek to tell me she feels ‘under pressure’ at her school. :-)

    She’s at the age (13, i.e. before major exams but not a child) when I think a little ‘crazy-busy’, as long as it is her idea, might be not too bad as a learning curve….hopefully a year of running herself ragged might convince her that down time ain’t such a bad thing.

  13. hineata July 7, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    P.S. she’s not performing well in all of these things (some better than others, but no one is optimal when they spread themselves too thin). I wonder how Tiger parents get optimal performance always from their kids? In the case of the Tiger Mom, whose book was actually really interesting, it seemed to be a mixture of Mum pushing and genetic talent (the parents are exceptional themselves).

    But even with super-scheduling, I don’t know how kids could be up all, even most, of the time.

  14. SKL July 7, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

    They tested 70 six-year-olds, so I am not sure how far we should take the implications. I think that there is an optimal balance for each kid, and kids do benefit (in the executive function area) from some structure too. I think age 6 or thereabouts is somewhat of a turning point, before which kids benefit much more from unstructured activities than structured ones. But that does not remain equally true as they get further into school age.

    I also feel that free ranging, for a school-age child, has little benefit if it doesn’t come with responsibility. That being the case, is it the freedom or the responsibility that improves kids’ executive function? And if it’s the responsibility, can’t this be provided within structured activities?

    Another thing. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If your kid has issues with executive function, you’re probably going to keep him on a shorter leash. So the study is going to show that your kid was on a shorter leash and has poor executive function. Can they prove causation?

    I think structured activities can encourage kids to develop problem-solving skills, since they force kids to deal with interpersonal situations they might prefer to avoid. And if given the right amount of responsibility, they learn to plan, problem-solve, and execute as much as a kid just putzing along the street.

    I do of course believe in giving kids independence and responsibility as soon as reasonable for each individual kid. But that doesn’t mean structured activities are creating problems. I think that the kids I see with problems are the ones who are spoiled because their parents take too much of the responsibility for the activities.

  15. johnf July 8, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    The chess picture seems to come from here:
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_Playing_Chess_on_the_Street_-_Santiago_de_Cuba_-_Cuba.jpg

  16. Owen Allen July 8, 2014 at 3:54 am #

    After spending 5 years in a boarding school with every moment scheduled, including study, it was noticeable that many of us, on going off to university, found the versatile schedules and ‘voluntary’ study very challenging. Even day students at the same school seemed to find the transition easier. So I’m not surprised the results of this study. However I’m still interested in the question, “Of what is motivation or empowerment towards purpose, goals, a function?”

  17. Andy July 8, 2014 at 4:12 am #

    @SKL I agree. Moreover, I think that binary framing of the issue as “structured vs unstructured – which is better” is inherently wrong. It is wrong way to frame the problem even for adults. All people above some age needs some of both. The right question is “how much of each is right at which age and for which kid”.

    Also, we should not make too much conclusion from one study on small number of kids, even if it shows some correlation at some specific age. These small scale studies are useful when considered as part of larger picture. However, using them as a proof of anything is usually very unscientific.

    Pretty good criticism on topic: http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/06/22/social-psychology-is-a-flamethrower/

  18. BL July 8, 2014 at 4:56 am #

    @John
    “homeless children in places such as the Philippines and Thailand, etc., actually learn conflict resolution just from interacting with their friends on the street and without the aid of adults. Of course, I’m certainly not advocating that children remain homeless but this just proves that even young kids can learn social skills solely from experience.”

    Of course you don’t need to be homeless. “Go outside and play” without adult supervision works wonders. Nor does it tend to turn into a “Lord of the Flies” scenario.

    Unfortunately, the purveyors of terms like “conflict resolution” insist on supervising and imposing “ideals” that make real interacting impossible. For example, insisting that nobody be excluded from an activity. If one of the chess players above is brazenly cheating, such an adult would insist that he not be excluded from the game in the name of “everybody has to get along” (and all conflicts must be resolved toward that end). Which means pretty soon there’s no game. Or there’s a fight, or at least an argument. The lesson such adults draw from this is that all children have to be supervised all the time.

    In fact, without close supervision, cheaters will just be excluded, and the game will go on. Since the cheaters themselves know this, the issue will rarely arise. They’ll either become non-cheaters or just stay away.

  19. Andy July 8, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    Violence and fighting are integral part of conflict resolution learned by homeless children, including those in places such as the Philippines and Thailand. The conflict get solved, but the solution often mean that the stronger one (or stronger group) gets what he wants.

    I am teaching my kids conflict resolution, I am explicitly teaching them that weaker/younger/less powerful kids have rights too.

    Lets not idealize the life of homeless children. Their lives are tough and prospects bad. Overprotected American middle class children still have much higher chances to grew up into well behaved capable citizen then them.

  20. lollipoplover July 8, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Kids that can freely choose how they spend their play time, hopefully doing things they really enjoy, will most definitely have their act together more when responsibility falls on them. If children can explore different activities to find what makes them happy, supervision isn’t necessary for things to run smooth. They want to do it again. They will behave/organize/*meet goals* to keep the adults from intervening and ruining all the fun.

    I also believe some kids really enjoyed structured play. Every kid is different. I think, as parents, we can gently lead them to find what they are passionate about and what makes them happy and then back off. I think where many parents get in trouble is the backing off part. Just because your child enjoys playing something doesn’t mean they need to be doing it 2-3x a week for 1.5 hour practices with adults directing and supervising how that time is spent. That sounds like an equation for unhappiness and executive dysfunction.

  21. Dirk July 8, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    Andy is totally right. With proper backing free range can definitely up executive functioning. I always point to Somalia as a negative example for a ton of stuff. It’s hyperbole I know but the free range without the proper backing of a safe home, nutrition, education, knowledge, experience (yes planned ones too) are all good stuff. That being said not everything has to be “optimal” for “success” to happen.

  22. Donna July 8, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    “IEPs are more common, period”

    More common than when? Yes, they are probably more common than when I was a child, but they are certainly not more common than they have ever been. I deal with many parents who have been trying to get IEPs and services for their kids (who need services) for years and can’t get the school to do anything.

  23. John July 8, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    @johnf…..Ahhh, from Cuba. Thanks John! It looked a little third worldish there and a bit South Americanish. Of course Cuba is still a bit far from Columbia but at least I was in the correct hemisphere….I think!