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Growth Curve

The inexact science
of raising kids
Laura Sanders

Growth Curve

Growth Curve

Kids’ me time may boost brainpower

girl on swing

FREE RANGE Children who spent more time roaming free performed better on a word task than children whose schedules were crammed with structured activities, a new study finds.

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At the playground yesterday, Baby V commando-crawled through a tunnel with holes on the side. Every so often, I stuck my face in there with a loud “peekaboo.” She reached up longingly toward the bouncy duck. I picked her up and steadied her as she lurched back and forth. She scrambled up some low stairs and launched down a slide. I lurked near the bottom, ready to assist and yell “yay” when she didn’t face-plant.

The one thing I didn’t do was sit back and leave her to her own devices, free from my helicopter-mom tendencies. But since I have the most ridiculous crush on that girl, it’s hard for me to leave her be. As a parent who works outside of the home, I treasure our time together. But as she becomes more capable and independent, I realize that I need to be more thoughtful about letting her carve out some space for herself.

A recent research paper emphasized this point. The study, published June 17 in Frontiers in Psychology, finds that children who spend more time in unstructured activities may better master some important life skills. Researchers sorted kids’ activities into unstructured activities, which included child-initiated activities such as playing alone or with friends, singing, riding bikes and camping, and structured activities, including soccer practice, piano lessons, chores and homework.

Six- and seven-year-olds who had more unstructured time scored higher on a measure of executive function, complex cognitive abilities such as seamlessly switching between tasks, resisting impulses and paying attention — all things that help people get along in this world.

In the experiment, 70 six- and seven-year-olds came into the lab and were asked to name as many words that fall into a category as possible in a minute. To do well, it helps to subdivide the answers into categories. If the category was “food,” a good approach would be to start with all the desserts first, then switch to vegetables, then go through picnic foods, and so on. Some children are good at self-directing these switches. They can recognize when they’ve tapped out a certain subcategory and move on to the next one without wasting a lot of time. This behavior, researchers reasoned, is a proxy for good executive function.

The kids who were best at this task-switching were the ones who spent the most time in unstructured activities, the researchers found by analyzing detailed activity logs filled out by the parents. The children who got the most time free from adult interference were the top performers on the word test.

Executive function is like a muscle that must be exercised, the researchers argue. And kids practice self-sufficiency only when they don’t have an adult hovering over them. Time spent in unstructured, self-directed play lets kids figure out how to self-regulate, allowing them to set goals and formulate plans: “First, I’ll go bang on that duck. Then I might throw some wood chips on the slide. Then I’ll take them off. Then I’ll put more on.”

An Atlantic piece earlier this year by Hanna Rosin raises some of these points. Through a discussion of playground safety (or lack thereof for some British playgrounds that feature fire pits, rusty old mattresses and rope swings over creeks), Rosin questions whether overprotective parents squelch independence, risk-taking and creativity. It’s an excellent question, and one that will become more and more relevant for me as Baby V grows up and gains new mischief-making abilities.

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Human Development,, Psychology

Your baby can watch movies for science

By Laura Sanders 11:49am, June 25, 2014
Any parent with a computer can let their kid participate in child development studies through a new website called Lookit.
Human Development,, Health

Pregnant women on the hook for calculating risks, benefits of fish

1:23pm, June 19, 2014
New draft FDA guidelines on fish for pregnant or nursing women make women do the math for how to maximize omega-3 fatty acids and minimize mercury exposure.
Immune Science,, Human Development

If timing’s right, cats and roaches may be good for kids’ allergies

By Laura Sanders 4:29pm, June 12, 2014
Exposure to mice, roaches and cats before a child’s first birthday may confer protection against asthma and allergies, a new study suggests.
Human Development,, Neuroscience,, Science & Society

Your baby: The ultimate science experiment

By Laura Sanders 5:18pm, June 4, 2014
Babies may be serious scientists, but parents can join the fun by trying some simple experiments with their kids.
Human Development,, Microbiology

Baby’s first bacteria arrive sooner than we thought

By Laura Sanders 9:30am, May 28, 2014
Forget what you’ve heard. The womb is most definitely not sterile.

Study on pregnant women’s driving has some potholes

By Laura Sanders 1:40pm, May 19, 2014
New study finds that pregnancy makes women get into more car accidents, but there could be a simpler explanation.
Human Development

Mom’s nutrition puts a stamp on baby’s DNA

By Laura Sanders 1:40pm, May 5, 2014
A new study is the latest in a growing list of how the environment sculpts a person’s epigenome.
Health,, Human Development

Induced labor doesn’t necessarily kick off cascade of interventions

By Laura Sanders 1:04pm, April 28, 2014
A large analysis of clinical trials finds that jump-starting labor actually leads to fewer C-sections, a finding that runs contrary to common birthing wisdom.
Evolution,, Human Development

Babies cry at night to prevent siblings, scientist suggests

By Laura Sanders 12:32pm, April 22, 2014
Babies who demand to be breastfed in the night might be delaying the birth of a sibling, scientist proposes.
Human Development

What’s going on in the mind of a Skyping baby?

By Laura Sanders 7:54am, April 16, 2014
By studying how young children respond to video calls, scientists hope to understand the role of new technology.
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