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By Katie Bellon, PhD, Denver Integrative Assessment

Could more free time help your child be more organized in school? Can unstructured play help children do better socially? You might be surprised to find that the answer is yes.

You may have heard “executive functioning” mentioned alongside discussion of traditional academic skills.  The executive functions refer to the brain’s self-regulatory capacities, housed mainly in the pre-frontal cortex.  These critical skills help an individual work in an intentional, directed way toward a future goal; prioritize and manage multiple, competing demands; and appropriately manage their emotional and behavioral reactions.

Damage to the prefrontal cortex can cause severe problems with self-regulation, as in the famous case of railroad worker Phineas Gage who survived a railroad construction accident involving an iron rod that was driven through his left frontal lobe. However, even in healthy adults, executive functioning exists on a continuum. Everyone possesses varying degrees of self-regulatory capacity, even under the best conditions (i.e., as fully developed adults, without a specific learning or developmental disorder that impacts executive functioning, not sleep-deprived, and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs).

But why does it seem like kids are struggling with these skills more than ever before?  While it’s difficult to establish a direct cause, the research has demonstrated the critical role of free (unstructured) play in the development of intrinsic self-regulation.1  And researchers and parents agree that children in the United States currently enjoy less and less free play time.2

Free or unstructured play refers to children playing without adult direction or interference of any kind.  Given this, if we consider the amount of time a child spends in school, completing homework, on a screen, at church, with a tutor, or participating in sports, enrichment classes, or other extracurricular activities, we can all agree that very little time is left for free play.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the debate, particularly as some schools are dropping recess altogether in favor of more academic time.3

To understand how unstructured play helps a child to develop self-regulatory skills, think about all that’s involved in play: communicating with other children; negotiating, compromising, and resolving conflicts; creative role-playing and working to stay in character; developing rules or guidelines to play by and revising these rules as needed; remembering, following and policing the rules to maintain fairness and safety; problem-solving when challenges arise; and keeping track over time of new developments or ideas for the next play time.

Children who consistently struggle with these skills experience the natural corrective consequences of exclusion, and are thus highly motivated to learn and improve.  In contrast, when children are involved in structured, adult-directed activities, the specific tasks/activities are chosen for them, the rules and expectations are explicitly communicated, prompts and corrections are provided for off-task behavior, and guidance or support is offered as needed.

Structured activities, like school and sports practice, teach children to respond to cues, an important form of extrinsic (other-directed) regulation.  But when the cues are removed, children who have not developed intrinsic (self-directed) executive skills tend to struggle.  In my testing practice, I have seen bright students with deficits in intrinsic self-regulation follow a predictable trajectory that typically ends with significant challenges in college.

So, with the realities of modern life being what they are, how are we as parents supposed to help our kids develop intrinsic self-regulation?  Below, I’ve offered some ideas to consider, with the hope of starting a conversation in your family.

Elementary-aged children

  • Let your child be bored as often as possible, as boredom sparks creativity. Most of your child’s time outside of school should be unstructured, either with friends, siblings, or by themselves, without access to screens.  Provide supervision only when necessary (e.g., for safety).  Seek out summer camps that are less structured and that provide plenty of time and space for children to play freely.
  • Children of all ages should have regular (daily) chores to help the family and contribute to the running of a household. If they do a sloppy job, have them do it again.  And again.  And again.  Most kids do better with regular chores that are frequent and predictable, than with less frequent chores that are unpredictably requested.
  • Limit the amount of time your child spends completing homework. A good rule of thumb is no more than 10 minutes per grade, per night.
  • Let your child experience the consequences of forgetting an assignment, their lunch, or their sports equipment. If forgetting is habitual, regular rituals need to be put into place to support organization (e.g., putting everything needed for school by the door the night before, with a reminder note to grab lunch from the fridge).
  • Start teaching money management by giving your child an allowance.

Middle-school-aged children

  • All of the above, plus . . .
  • Playing will naturally look different at this age, and phones/screens commonly enter the picture. Have conversations with other parents about restricting access to screens while kids are spending time together, to promote healthy relationships and social skills development.
  • Minimal supervision should be needed when children this age are playing, and when screens are not accessible. Depending on the safety of the neighborhood, kids should be able to bicycle to a nearby park without parents.
  • Teach your child phone/email etiquette. Provide opportunities for them to buy things at the store and interact with service personnel.
  • Have a conversation with your child’s teachers about what the expectations are for parental involvement, according to your child’s specific needs. Help your child plan ahead, but do not rescue them.
  • Teach your child to advocate for their own needs. Offer your presence and support only.
  • Daily chores/responsibilities/expectations continue and are increased appropriately
  • Increase allowance and teach them to save or work for more expensive purchases

High-school-aged children

  • All of the above, plus . . .
  • Your adolescent should be budgeting farther in advance and for larger items. For example, consider giving them a seasonal or annual clothing allowance that they are responsible for managing.
  • Summer jobs are essential for this age group. Have your adolescent earn the money to pay for phone bills, gas, and social activities.
  • Your adolescent should be able to take a city bus to meet friends downtown. Buses involve planning ahead, using a map, and transferring – Uber/Lyft and parent chauffeuring are not equivalent alternatives.
  • Your adolescent should be responsible for making doctors’ appointments and filling out school forms.
  • At this point, your adolescent should be managing their own sleep/wake cycle, daily medications, and school/sports responsibilities without your assistance.
  • Think seriously about your adolescent’s readiness for college. If you are helping them fill out applications, write essays, or ask teachers for recommendations, these are red flags.

As your child grows and moves through each stage of development, if they are consistently unable to meet the self-regulatory demands of daily life, it’s important to understand the origin of these challenges accurately.  Are the challenges consistent across settings?  Are they struggling despite appropriate support or because of low expectations coupled with frequent rescuing?  If the latter, is the rescuing due to the child’s limitations, or due to parental anxiety?  Following such a decision tree should lead to a direction for evaluation and/or intervention.  Keeping an open mind is important, however, as the main target for intervention may not end up being your child.

Works Cited
1Barker JE, Semenov AD, Michaelson L, et. al. Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers of Psychology. 2014; 5: 593.
2Gray, P. The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play. 2011; 3-4: 443.
3American Academy of Pediatrics. The Crucial Role of Recess in School. Pediatrics. 2013; 131-1: 183.

Additional References
https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/for-better-school-results-clear-the-schedule-and-let-kids-play/373144/

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/10/all-work-and-no-play-why-your-kids-are-more-anxious-depressed/246422/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/26/well/how-to-help-a-teenager-be-college-ready.html

Katie Bellon, PhD

Katie Bellon, PhD

Dr. Katherine Bellon is a clinical psychologist licensed in the state of Colorado. She earned her Bachelor’s in Spanish and pre-medicine studies from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Dr. Bellon then completed her graduate education at Fielding Graduate University in the American Psychological Association (APA) accredited Clinical Psychology Program, and received her doctoral degree in January 2010. She received clinical training at the Community Reach Center, the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan, and The Children’s Hospital.

In 2008-09, Dr. Bellon completed an APA-accredited internship at the Denver Veteran’s Affairs Hospital, where she later worked as a post-doctoral clinical/research psychologist at the Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Centers (MIRECC). Dr. Bellon left the VA in 2010 to focus on educational and psychological assessment in the private practice setting before beginning the practice that would become Denver Integrative Assessment in 2012.

Dr. Bellon’s current focus is on psychological assessment for adults and adolescents, and educational testing for children six years old and older, adolescents, and adults.