Posts tagged ‘executive function’

July 1, 2014

Take a Break: Encouraging Unstructured Play to Create Self-Directed Children

by Melissa Harding


It used to be that unstructured time, both inside and out, was a common experience in childhood. Not so anymore, with many children filling their free time with sports, classes and other activities designed by adults. This may partly be due to the notion that modern children need to be cultivated and made outstanding in order to ensure their success in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.  As a relatively new development in child-raising, concerted cultivation has been both touted and bemoaned by many. Should children spend their free time playing as they like or engaged in enriching activities? This question has been dividing parents for years, each side debating the merit of their opinions. Unfortunately, there has been little research done on this subject to better understand which is more beneficial to children – at least, until now. A recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that children who spend more time in unstructured activities have are actually much better able to set their own goals, independent of adults, and then take action to meet those goals.

This skill is part of a broader term called “executive function”. Executive function is what you use to control your cognitive processes, such as working memory, problem solving, planning, reasoning, and task flexibility. This skill increases with age as the prefrontal cortex develops (which explains why reasoning and planning are difficult for young children). In children, executive function can manifest itself in important skills such as emotional control and delayed gratification. Additionally, executive function during childhood can predict other outcomes such as academic performance, health, wealth, and criminality later in life. All told, this has scientists looking at a variety of different ways to improve executive function development, especially in early childhood. While there has been much research done on externally-driven executive function, in which adults cue children to act, this is one of the first studies to really examine how scheduled activities affect internally-driven executive function, in which children much determine for themselves what goal-directed actions to complete.

Why is self-directed executive function so important? This type of executive function develops later in life and is far more cognitively demanding than responding to an outside directive. This is true even for adults. Executive function is linked to self-control, that pesky mental muscle that we all use to keep us from procrastinating or eating too many sweets. A child with strong self-directed executive function skills needs less adult help to exercise self-discipline, which ultimately means that they will grow into adults who need fewer external cues to control themselves.


The study tracked 70 6-year olds over the course of a week, with parents recording their daily activities. Researchers categorized each activity as either less or more structured; all child-initiated activities, such as spontaneous play and reading, and outings and events were coded as “less-structured”, whereas adult-led practice, homework and religious activities were coded as “structured”. In a separate study, parents were asked to track how often their child engaged in a variety of structured and unstructured activities over the course of the last year. Children were also evaluated for self-directed executive function with a standard verbal fluency test. The results showed that more unstructured time actually resulted in better self-directed executive function and vice versa, with more structured time resulting in poorer self-directed executive function. While this is only one study, the results are intriguing and suggestive of a need for more unstructured time in the lives of our children.

Fortunately, promoting unstructured play and activities is far easier than it may seem, since the best thing to do is just to get out of the way. Let your children get a little bored and they will find a way to keep themselves busy, whether it is deciding to read a book or playing pretend.  Unstructured time is especially beneficial when spent in enriching, resource-rich environment, so head to the zoo or the library and let your child lead the expedition. On these hot days of summer, it can be a nice change of pace to spend some time in the air-conditioned wonder of a local museum. Another enriching space is nature. In fact, spending time in nature is not only a great way to encourage child-led play, but it’s beneficial for the whole family. Time outside is linked to overall greater happiness and well-being in all people, parents as well as kids. Don’t worry about leading an elaborate hike with a pre-planned scavenger hunt or needing to create the perfect homemade snacks – just go outside and play! Play catch, lay in the sun, read stories together, pick flowers or anything else that your child enjoys. In fact, you might even want to send your children to play amongst themselves and spend some well-earned time doing an activity just for you, leaving them to entertain themselves. After all, that’s how unstructured play works.

To read the entire study, check out this link.

Learn how a connection to nature creates confident, successful kids.

Read how nature exposure is linked to increased self-discipline.

The above photos were taken by Corey Doman.


August 27, 2013

Small Children in Museums: Early Learning in Informal Learning Institutions

by Melissa Harding

IMG_0271Museums do not immediately seem like a great place for young children. After all, amid exhibits of dinosaur bones, famous paintings and priceless statues, a small child is often considered more likely to topple a vase than to appreciate it. However, young children truly benefit from their time in these informal learning institutions. The Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 12,3000 libraries and 1,7500 museums, along with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, have recently put out a new report tackling the issue of early learning in museums. According to the report, Growing Young Minds, libraries and museums are “… welcoming places where children make discoveries, deepen common interests, expand words and knowledge, and connect their natural curiosity to the wider world.” Neuroscientists have found that the self-directed, experiential and content-rich learning that children experience in museums are important building blocks to a successful future.

Museums and libraries of all types – art, history, science, nature centers and gardens, zoos, aquaria and children’s museums – come together to form a network of learning. As part of this network, informal institutions play an important role in the community. They are anchors, providing safe spaces for public discourse, learning, and cultural and civic engagement; this is especially important for those who are vulnerable, such as those who are under-served, children, and the elderly. Museums and libraries also act as bridges to connect multiple generations, differing cultural or religious groups, and families together in the pursuit of education. They are teachers, offering exciting spaces for learning, engaging public programs and meaningful outreach. They are also the keepers of our collective culture, from the scientific to the historical and everything in between; not only do they act as stewards of culture, but they make it accessible to all.

These institutions are especially important in early childhood development. The more immersive the environment, the better able young children are to engage with it; what is more immersive than a museum? The repetition of visiting museums and libraries over and over again creates a strong engagement with the collections over time. Early learners are able to create familiar connections with their own lives, such as connecting the flowers in a botanical garden with those near their homes. Museums and libraries are also places where children can be lovingly introduced to objects that adults think are special, helping them to make personal and social connections to the plants, animals, and artifacts that are meaningful to their families. Additionally, learning behaviors exhibited by young children as they engage with these institutions – this includes everything from increased observation skills to the successful manipulation of objects –  provide evidence that the museum environment is an effective learning tool.

While the development of early cognitive skills – those that contribute to school-readiness like reading and writing skills – is wonderfully apparent, museums and libraries also help to boost non-cognitive skills, such an emotional regulation and focus. A 2004 report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child  shows that emotional regulation skills, cognitive, motor, and social skills develop together through environmental interaction. Called executive function, the non-cognitive area of development is boosted at the same time as cognitive skills; this gives early learning a two-fold importance, as early emotional development lays the foundation for academic success and vice versa. Together, these developmental skills help children to become motivated and excited learners.


Museums contribute to this important stage in a child’s life by engaging children in learning. Libraries and museums all over the country are trying to prepare young minds for a successful future through interactive exhibits, games, and outreach programs that specifically target early learners. Educational staff at these institutions are creating content-rich, play-based programming that utilizes some of the best early learning practices and matches them with unique collections. These same programs also engage adults and prompt them to make their own connections and ask their own questions; this in turn helps to instill a love of learning in children, as well as give them an example after which to model their own curiosity.

Simply put, museums and libraries are not just great place for early learning, but they are centers of developmental importance. Many of these institutions have education and outreach in their missions and strive to engage the whole family at either free or subsidized costs.

Here are some ways to make the most of your local informal learning institutions:

1. Visit the library: Libraries have more than just books to offer (although free books are their own kind of treasure); many libraries offer story time programs, storytelling, parent-child interactive programming, outreach programs in the park and more.
2. Look for deals: Many institutions have several days a year where admission is free or discounted. Look also for online coupons for memberships or visitor passes. Check the websites of your local museums and see when these days are being offered.
3. Look for your favorite institutions out and about: Many of these places set up tables with engaging displays and activities at local festivals and fairs – sometimes they also have coupons for admission or other fun deals to offer. Some institutions also have a traveling science bus or Bookmobile that you can visit in a local park or near your school. They may even be offering free programs or story readings in your neighborhood. Keep your eyes on the website to find out where they will be next.
4. Purchase a membership: If possible, purchase a membership at your favorite museum; this is especially great in cold or nasty weather, when the museum provides a fun place to get out of the house for both kids and adults. Returning to the same museum or library over and again will really allow your child to become immersed in the collections and develop a sense of place.
5. Support your local library system and museums: Many of these organizations are considered to be non-profit institutions and require community support. Even a small donation may help them with anything from upkeep to staffing – it may even help local schools or under-served children gain admission.

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
– Andrew Carnegie

To learn more about museums and early learning, check out the full IMLS Report, Growing Young Minds.

To learn more about early learning and child development, check out the great resources available through the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.


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