One reason not to overschedule your kids

Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice — North­east Region via Flickr.

A debate has emerged in the last few years about the impor­tance of early inter­ac­tions with nature. Kids these days tend to spend more time inside in front of screens and less time out­side wan­dering around aim­lessly. As a result, par­ents and researchers alike are curious about the impacts of such a change. There’s even a bill in Wash­ington about it. Recent work from North­eastern pro­fessor of psy­chology John Coley adds some con­text to the debate and is, to my mind, crazy-​​interesting.

In an article pub­lished in the journal Child Devel­op­ment ear­lier this year, Coley presents data showing the dif­fer­ence between rural, sub­urban, and urban children’s ten­dency to make eco­log­ical associations.

In the study, they asked 346 Mass­a­chu­setts school chil­dren, aged 6, 8, or 10, to answer a couple of ques­tions about ani­mals. The researchers pre­sented the kids with groups of three plants or ani­mals like the following:

Then they’d be told one of two state­ments: Either: “The cat­tail has sarca inside.” Or: “The cat­tail has a dis­ease called sarca.”

Then the researchers asked which of other two organism is most likely to also have sarca (which by the way, is a totally made up thing).

The kid has two choices: either the dan­de­lion has sarca, which would make sense since cat­tails and dan­de­lions are both plants. Or the bull­frog has sarca, which would make sense because frogs live near cattails.

The first answer demon­strates some tax­o­nom­ical abil­i­ties, the child is able to make dis­tinct cat­e­gor­ical infer­ences between plants and ani­mals. The second answer requires a little bit more nuanced thinking, which Coley calls “eco­log­ical reasoning.”

In Coley’s study, rural kids as young as six years old clearly demon­strated sound eco­log­ical rea­soning. Sub­urban kids started showing this ability around age 8 and urban kids not until age 10.

But here’s my favorite part: the researchers also asked the kids a few other ques­tions about how they like to spend their time and what kinds of struc­tured out­door activ­i­ties they’ve been involved in. Across all three demo­graphics, it didn’t matter how much struc­tured time they’d had with nature. If they went to zoos or aquar­iums with school or took care of pets at home, the results remained the same. BUT, if the kids reported spending time exploring the nat­ural world on their own with no real struc­ture around the activity, they were MORE LIKELY to demon­strate eco­log­ical rea­soning abil­i­ties ear­lier, regard­less of the demographic.

Essen­tially, kids that wan­dered around aim­lessly in the out­doors were better at making com­plex asso­ci­a­tions about the nat­ural world.

I think it’s really cool because I think it sug­gests that people are just sort of designed to pick up on these kinds of rela­tions,” said Coley. “And the way to become knowl­edge­able and sen­si­tive to them in nature is just to explore.”

They also asked the kids to riff on the way they spend their time, rather than asking directed, yes or no ques­tions. This led to the sec­ondary finding that the way chil­dren think is much more sys­tem­atic than we might suspect.

A lot of times you might think that kids’ ability to report what they do and what they’re inter­ested in might be kind of unreliable,“said Coley. “But I think the clear and strong rela­tions between kid’s reported activity and they way they’re thinking on this task shows that the way they’re talking about their activ­i­ties aren’t just whimsical.”

This research falls into Coley’s larger body of work about the com­plex, cat­e­gor­ical infer­ences we make on a minute-​​to-​​minute basis without really thinking about it. When asked whether urban kids are at a dis­ad­van­tage because of this out­come, he said it’s really case deter­mi­nate. If we did a sim­ilar study about social diver­sity, Coley said, urban kids might be more likely to demon­strate com­plex rea­soning abil­i­ties than their rural coun­ter­parts simply because they’ve had more chances to interact with a diverse population.