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Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning


Unstructured activities improves children’s self-directed executive functioning

The mental processes that “regulate thought and action in support of goal-directed behavior” are called executive functions (EFs). The study of EFs during childhood is significant because this is the period of human development in which such cognitive functions have the most dramatic growth potential. The study of EFs overall is significant because they support higher-level cognitive processes such as “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”.

Most existing research on EF focuses on externally-driven goals guided by formal, structured, adult-led activities. This study focused on self-directed EF, in which the child determines what goal directed actions to take and when to do so.  The researchers hypothesized that “time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits”.  Seventy (70) six and seven year old children were recruited, along with a parent, to participate in the study. The parents and children attended one research session in which the children were individually tested on tasks that measured both self-directed and externally driven EF and the parents completed surveys that provided data on demographics and the child’s daily, annual and typical schedules. The children’s activities (outside of formal school hours) were coded as “structured” or “less-structured”. Structured activities were typically adult-led, such as lessons and practices, while less structured activities were often child initiated and include free play; social events with family (including camping, picnics, hiking, biking, and swimming); enrichment events (such as visits to the museum, library, and zoo); entertainment (movies, performances, sporting events); reading; and media/screen time.

Enrichment activities and social events significantly predicted self-directed EF, and play with others was marginally predictive. Overall, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the better their self-directed EF, even when controlling for age, verbal ability, and household income.  Conversely, structured activities predicted poorer self-directed EF.



Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., Munakata, Y., (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(593), 1-16.

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