Participation in organized activities — like sports or music lessons — is essential for childhood development, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
Research suggests that when children are over-scheduled, it impairs their ability to develop self-directed executive function — the ability to set a goal and independently figure out how to reach it.
A study at University of Colorado Boulder, led by Jane Barker, analyzed 67 six-year-old children and their families for their activities throughout a week and gave the children verbal fluency tests to gauge their self-directed executive function.
"We gave them (the children) a category such as food, and then ask them to name as many foods and they can in a one-minute period," Barker said.
Children with good executive function naturally listed foods by categories, like vegetables or breakfast foods, and the kids who did better on these tests were those with more free time.
"We typically don't provide instructions for people about how to solve it and produce a lot of words, but we do see this sort of spontaneous self-directed organizational activity," Barker said.
Free time can include reading, going to the park or playing — whether alone or with others — anything that is less structured and less scheduled. This allows the child to make decisions and time to develop a critical skill.
Something to note: The children involved in this study all came from affluent families. Previous studies have found that children from low-income households may benefit from adding structured activities.
So, it's all about striking a balance between scheduled and free time, a balance that's hard to find even in adulthood.