Each of us is the chief executive of our own life. When we make a shopping list to be sure we get all the ingredients for a meal, plan a scrapbooking project to remember our recent trip, choose a college major, inhibit our instinct to blurt out the punch line while we are telling a joke, or take an umbrella because the sky looks like it's clouding up, we are using a specific group of higher order thought processes that help us run our lives.

Executive functions develop throughout childhood and early adulthood and are important predictors of school readiness in preschoolers and school success later on.

The skills we use to turn experience into informed actions are known as executive functions. They include planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details and managing time and space. Executive functions allow us to regulate our behavior, respond to unforeseen challenges, and function effectively at home, school, work, and in social situations. They help us achieve our goals.

Executive functions allow us to do such things as:

  • Make plans
  • Keep track of time and finish work on time
  • Keep track of more than one thing at once
  • Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • Evaluate ideas and reflect on our work
  • Change our minds and make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading and writing
  • Ask for help or seek more information when we need it
  • Engage in group dynamics
  • Wait to speak until we’re called on.

Executive functions, like other skills, develop throughout childhood and early adulthood. They are important predictors of school readiness in preschoolers and school success later on. Children with poorer executive functions are generally less successful in adulthood in terms of health, wealth and social relationships.

The Difference Between Organizing Yourself and Being Organized

Because they are so important to future well-being and school preparedness, parents and researchers both have an interest in how children acquire executive functions. Do they learn them at home, in school, from direct modeling and prompting, or less formally? Can they be taught and if so, what is the best way to do that? Many school-based strategies and programs have been designed toward this goal.

Externally-Driven Training
Some of the basics of planning and organizing one's approach to a problem can be taught. Often these strategies involve training or interventions led by adult where children are able to practice executive functions in an environment where adults provide some guidance. This is much of what we learn in school.

Self-directed executive functions are important skills that require a person to come up with his or her own rules and timing for tasks.

These programs usually focus on externally-driven executive functions where children are able to produce goal-directed behaviors when they are given a set of reminders. They learn how to break down and organize the steps needed to reach a goal — whether it is making cookies, organizing a paragraph, or doing long division.

Self-Directed Executive Functions
Of course, life does not always provide us with instructions for figuring out how best to deal with the decisions and problems we face, so people who learn how to manage their executive functions themselves tend to have a leg up on those who rely on others to frame the solution for them.

These self-directed executive functions are important skills that require a person to come up with his or her own rules and timing for tasks. He or she must rely on internal cues rather than externally imposed patterns. These self-directed plans require even more skills than externally driven executive functions.

A group of researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Denver wondered what sorts of experiences and situations encourage children to learn these valuable skills.

The Study: What Helps Kids Develop Executive Functions?

Many of the programs aimed at teaching children to plan and organize tasks at school tend to rely on structured supervision and prompting to teach these externally-directed executive functions. The researchers wanted to see if self-directed planning, organizing and executing could also be nurtured.

They suspected that children who were offered more opportunities for unstructured play would get more practice in self-direction, so they looked at how 6- and 7-year-olds' self-directed executive functioning skills developed depending on how much time they spent time in unstructured as opposed to structured activities.

The idea was to see if the amount of time children spent in less structured activities improved their ability to be direct themselves. Children in unstructured situations experience the consequences of their decisions and are responsible for their own transitions during and between activities.

Structured time was defined as time that was supervised to some degree by an adult and provided children with a clear set of conventional activities in which to engage. This category might include music lessons, organized sports practice, community service, and homework.

Children who spent more time in less structured activities demonstrated better self-directed executive function skills.

Less structured activities were voluntary leisure activities in which adults provided fewer guidelines or direct instructions. This might include spontaneous backyard play, imaginative open-ended play, free-style art activities where a desired product or skill was not specified.

Children were then tested with formal measures of executive functioning that included both externally and internally driven EF skills.

Kids Need Unstructured Play

Children who spend more time in less structured activities tend to be better at planning, organizing, and managing themselves, as measured by standardized tests of EF, the study found. These children displayed better self-control than children who had less opportunity for unstructured activities even when age, verbal ability, and household income were the same.

“These findings represent the first demonstration that time spent in a broad range of less-structured activities outside of formal schooling predicts goal-directed behaviors not explicitly specified by an adult, and that more time spent in structured activities predicts poorer such goal-directed behavior,” the researchers write.

Kids can benefit from open-ended free and imaginative play, art and backyard construction, recreational, un-coached and largely unsupervised neighborhood sports, and other forms of less structured free time.

They note that less structured activities may give children more self-directed opportunities, while more structured time may inhibit the development of self control because adults provide external cues and reminders about sequencing and timing of activities.

The message for parents, particularly in the summertime, is that children should not be scheduled dawn to dusk and beyond with highly-structured activities in which adults make choices, set the pace and goals, and address the consequences of behaviors. Kids can learn the sorts of planning, decision-making, and organizing skills they will need throughout life from open-ended free and imaginative play, art and backyard construction, recreational, un-coached and largely unsupervised neighborhood sports, and other forms of less-structured free time.

Of course parents need to be mindful of safety issues and of the comfort level of their children in various less supervised social situations; they also need to be sure that the challenges awaiting their children are appropriate to their cognitive and developmental level. When difficult challenges are faced, parents may wish to discuss approaches and outcomes with their children in a "debriefing" to help them build successfully on experiences.

The study appears in Frontiers in Psychology.