In my many years of parenting, grandparenting, teaching, consulting, and coaching, I have often wrestled, and helped others wrestle with the question, “How much activity outside of school is too much for gifted kids? What is that ‘Goldilocks Sweet Spot’ -- not too much, not too little, but just a right amount of activity? And why does it matter?
Oftentimes parents of gifted children get a bad rap as “stage parents.” They are accused, sometimes unfairly, of pushing their children, signing them up for every activity offered, scheduling their child’s days, evenings and weekends, and providing coaches to develop talent in their child. Other times, it is the gifted child him/herself wanting to do it all, and this can be one of the hallmarks of gifted children. This syndrome often becomes most evidenced in high school and college, when some young adults feel that they must do it all, and have it all, because “it will look great on my resume.”
But at what cost?
In a recent article published in Frontiers in Psychology -- Developmental Psychology, 17 June, 2014, available at http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593, as part of a series on the development of executive functioning during childhood, researchers found that “kids whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals.” The hypothesis was that “time spent in less structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits.” The researchers further stated that self-directed executive function develops dramatically during childhood, and supports a number of high-level cognitive processes, including better planning and decision-making, maintenance and manipulation of information in memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts, feelings and actions, and flexible shifting from one task to another.” Executive functioning has emerged as a critical, early predictor of success across a range of important outcomes.
The researchers described more structured activities as lessons, sports, clubs, and activities usually led by adults, with specific outcomes for children as their goal. Less structured activities were described as loose, voluntary leisure activities in which adults provide fewer guidelines or direct instructions, are often spontaneous, take place without formal rules or direction from adults, and feature few goals related to skill development (academic, artistic, behavioral, social, or physical). These could include free play, family and social events, reading, drawing, and media time, among others.
The researchers did indeed confirm their hypothesis: kids whose time is less structured possess stronger SELF-DIRECTED executive function, and are better able to meet their own goals. They “displayed better self-control, perhaps because less structured time may uniquely support the development of self-control by affording children with additional practice in carrying out goal-directed actions using internal cues and reminders.”
The researchers did acknowledge that their student sample was limited, and somewhat skewed to higher income families. They also acknowledged that this research is only the beginning in studying children’s time outside of formal schooling. But...it does provide food for thought.
In closing, a few observations of my own are offered here for your consideration. Today’s children and young adults seem to respond well to adult coaching (perhaps as a result of a steady diet of it). But, have we traded this for a child’s “white space,” -- time to think, to dream, to plan, to execute, to fail, to reinvent, to self-direct? And...at what cost?
Past President, WATG
Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted Nationally Certified Trainer