Have you ever heard of the term “executive function?” Sounds like something Republicans and Democrats would argue over, doesn’t it? But in child development research, it refers to the cognitive ability of a child to set a goal, consider options, develop a plan, and make a decision. New studies suggest that children gain these highly valuable skills through free play.
An increasing trend in our country is to schedule every moment of our children’s day. In the past, children spent lots of time playing games of their own invention. Today, children move from one structured time to another, from highly organized school sessions to soccer lessons, tutoring, dance class, or any number of pursuits.
Parents sometimes overvalue the specialized training that comes from directed activity. But research clearly shows that executive function, cultivated by free play, prepares children for success in life by helping them solve problems independently.
An article in The Atlantic (Atlantic.com, June 2014) reported on the results of recent study:
The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults…They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control.”
When you pick your child up from childcare, church, or school, don’t equate progress with lots of “take home” worksheets. In the early years, children need to play, and that means the process is more important than the product.
My own master’s and doctoral research looked at the connection between free play, creativity, and question-asking behavior. I found that higher levels of free play were significantly related to both creativity and the frequency with which children ask questions.
Value play and encourage it.
It promotes growth in language, social skills, curiosity, and executive function. When we hurry preschoolers into academics, we feel we are helping them get ahead, but we aren’t. The Lord knew what He was doing by creating the period we call childhood. Don’t push your kids out of this glorious phase too quickly.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child;
when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11
How do you “hurry” your child’s development, and why?
By James D. Dempsey, Ph.D.
Husband to Gail, Father of three
1 Corinthians 13 Parenting Team Member
Presenter for The National Center For Biblical Parenting
Author of Parenting Unchained, and host of the radio show by the same name at www.LOTOradio.com