The case for summertime play: Unstructured versus structured summer play

Is it good for children to have unstructured time in the summer? New research says yes.

Unstructured play aids in the development of critical cognitive skills.
Unstructured play aids in the development of critical cognitive skills.

The lazy days of summer vacation are no longer “lazy” for many American children. The options are endless. Summer school, art camp, music lessons, swimming lessons, soccer camp and many more structured, summertime activities provide ways to keep children learning and engaged in the summertime. But is this the way to go? Are children who are engaged in one structured activity after another, all summer long, better off than those who are outside playing?

A new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado is making the case for unstructured summer play as being a valuable way to help children be more school ready. Why is that? How could playing be more important than a structured lesson? Well, researchers found that when children engage in unstructured play, day-dreaming, risk-taking and independent discovery, they are actually aiding the development of children’s executive functioning. Executive functioning has long been identified as one of the key skills for academic and life success.

So what is executive functioning? And why does it matter? Executive functioning is the term used to define critical cognitive skills such as self-regulation, organization, planning and switching between tasks. This particular study looked at “self-directed executive function.” This skill is defined as the ability to create personal goals and decide how to practically achieve them. Self-direction is a critical skill that helps children learn how to be productive and take steps toward achieving a goal.

The University of Colorado study looked at the play habits and schedules of 70 six-year-old children. They measured how much time was spent in activities defined as “less structured,” such as imaginative play and spontaneous activities, and how much time was spent in “structured” activities, such as those supervised and organized by adults including lessons, sports practice and homework. For the purpose of the study, all activities initiated by children were classified as “less structured” and all activities initiated by adults were classified as “structured.”

They found that children who are engaged in more “less structured” activities have a more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also found to be true. Children who spend more time engaged in structured activities tend to have less well-developed, self-directed executive function. The link between time engaged in less structured activities and the development of executive function skills was found to be robust, defined as “holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less structured.” These findings are not new. Play has been continuously identified as supporting the development of executive functioning skills.

What happens in play that is important to children’s development? In free play, children are learning how to make decisions on their own. They learn to solve their own problems, create and follow rules of play with their peers and they learn how to get along with others. It is through play that children learn they actually do have control of the world around them.

Michigan State University Extension offers a class for parents and caregivers on play called “The Purpose of Play,” which looks deeper into the varying skills learned in play, including fine and gross motor development, social and emotional skills and cognitive skills. Find a Purpose of Play session near you or online, and sign up for MSU Extension news and information on these topics and more at the MSU Extension website.

So this summer, step back and let your children play! Don’t feel guilty about not signing them up for an activity or lesson every week. Invite their friends over and let them play. Rest assured they are learning while they play and building one of the most important skills for school and life success, executive functioning.

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