Did you know unstructured play can greatly benefit your child’s learning and also help make them more successful in life? With the decline in open-ended play, here’s why it’s important to add unstructured time as a regular part of your child’s day, including ideas for unstructured free play for children activities.
What is unstructured play?
Unstructured play, sometimes called unstructured free play, is allowing your child free time to play how they want, with open ended play, without a specific learning objective. You don’t give children instructions, predetermined rules, directions, or guidelines. Just allow your child to play!
What is an example of unstructured play?
Unstructured play happens anytime your child can play without a specific goal in mind. An example of unstructured play is giving your child a box of blocks and allowing them to build or play however they want with them.
Why is unstructured play important?
Unstructured play (open ended activities) helps kids:
- Develop confidence
- Practice teamwork
- Support independence
- Discover new things
- Practice making choices
- Develop critical thinking skills
- Grow imaginations
- Boost brain function
- Practice social skills
- Understand self-control
- Facilitate emotional development
- Practice problem solving
- Express creativity
- Develop resilience
- Appreciate the freedom to explore
- Boost physical development
As you can see, there are a ton of unstructured play benefits!
Is unsupervised playtime the same as unstructured play?
Unsupervised playtime is not necessarily the same as unstructured play. Unsupervised playtime generally means that kids are playing without adult supervision. Think: playing volleyball in the backyard with no parents around. Unstructured play may be supervised where parents, teachers, or adults are present, but are not guiding or directing the play.
Before we get to the unstructured play tips and benefits, let’s cover an important child development topic:
How Lack Of Play Can Affect A Child
Play deprivation, or lack of play, can actually have long-term effects on a child. Studies have shown that kids who suffer from play deprivation may suffer from obesity, have higher incidences of depression, issues with self-control, and increases feelings of isolation. And, it’s a huge concern with the decline of outdoor play.
According to one study:
The hypothesis of play deprivation in humans leading to serious socialization deficits and more has, based on a wide variety of evidence, increasing credence. The boundaries of play science are expanding, and as they do, the survival drive statua and importance of PLAY will become more and more evident, and integrated into public consciousness and policy … The daily evidence of a lack of basic play hygiene that is endemic in Western culture frames many of the overall socialization deficits that are individual and societal.
YOU MAY ALSO BE INTERESTED IN:
Now, let’s take a look at the value of unstructured play.
Benefits of Unstructured Play
Let’s keep going with unstructured play research for a minute.
A 2011 dissertation from University of Pennsylvania titled, An Investigation of Unstructured Play in Nature and its Effect on Children’s Self-Efficacy reports:
According to Berman (2007), children learn to solve problems, socialize, self regulate, and gain self-confidence through unstructured play. It has been hypothesized that children who are allowed to play on their own terms grow up to be adults who can be leaders in life and the workplace (Berman, 2007). Burdette and Whitaker (2005) believe that free play can help regulate many emotional states such as depression, aggression, anxiety, and sleep problems.
Now, I don’t know what all that means, but it sounds pretty serious…
Unstructured Play vs Structured Play
What is the difference between free play and structured play?
What is structured and unstructured play?
Structured play occurs when a child is given specific directions, rules, or guidance while playing, sometimes to achieve a specific goal or complete a task. Unstructured play is when a child plays without guidance from an adult.
The difference between free play vs structured play is how much direction is involved by the supervising adult during children play time activities.
What is play based learning?
Play-based learning is another phrase for unstructured play. This is when children explore and play on their own terms without guidance from an adult. Play-based learning is when children direct play on their own.
What is structured play in early years?
Structured play, also called goal-oriented play, in early years is when you give your child a play task that involves a specific learning objective. This is also sometimes called “play with purpose.” Structured play can include a toddler game for brushing their teeth to practice life skills or directing a child through an obstacle course to work on gross motor skills.
Unstructured play in early childhood is just as important as structured play!
What is the difference between structured and unstructured physical activity?
Physical activities are anything that gets your kids up and moving around. In a structured physical activity, an adult will guide the kids through the process like in Simon Says or showing kids how to kick a soccer ball. In an unstructured physical activity, the child will lead the activity with no specific goal in mind. For example, a child may take a soccer ball to the backyard and just kick it around for fun as one of their unstructured play activities.
How do you balance between structured and unstructured plays?
It’s important to find a balance between structured play and unstructured play, especially in younger children. Once a child has completed a learning task (or group of related tasks), build in time for free play by offering bins of creative play items (art supplies, blocks, Lego blocks, puzzles, etc.). As your kids get older, they will naturally gravitate to more unstructured play.
Unstructured Play Ideas
How do you encourage unstructured play?
Encouraging unstructured play is simple: you allow your child to play without providing them direction. You can create a “boredom bin” full of different random items. When it’s time for free play, open up the bin and let them play however they want with the items inside.
One of the things that I did with my daughter when she was younger was make something I called Busy Bags.
I would take regular plain brown lunch bags and I would go around the house and place random items in each bag (without giving it any thought) or even things I found on clearance that she’s never seen. I would then staple the bags shut (so my daughter couldn’t peak in them).
These were the Busy Bag rules:
- Only one Busy Bag can be opened at a time.
- Once you open a Busy Bag, you have to make something out of the contents: an art piece, a game, a craft, or whatever.
- There were a limit of two Busy Bags per day (or free play session) so that she didn’t rush through one to get to another if she didn’t like the contents.
(I explain the whole process in the resource link below.)
My daughter loved this for years and would ask me to make them for her when the basket was empty. I made up 10 at a time and put them in a basket.
Want to know how to encourage unstructured play?
Just to let your child have spontaneous play (in a group or alone) or get bored.
When your child gets bored, that’s when the real creativity (and learning!) starts to kick in.
HELPFUL RESOURCE: 37 UNIQUE Bored Things To Do + SURPRISING Benefits of Boredom
It’s OK to help your kids with ideas for unstructured play time, but once they’ve chosen what they want to do then it’s time to become hands-off (with no opinion on how they should be playing).
Also, you can offer almost any toys for unstructured play!
What are unstructured activities?
Here are some ideas and unstructured play examples:
- Putting on music for kids to have a dance party
- Making pillows and blankets available to build a fort (indoors or outside!)
- Exploring a new playground or park
- Building with cardboard boxes, shoe boxes, or empty egg cartons
- Going on a hike
- Offering a bin of dress-up clothes for imaginary play
- Building with blocks or Lego bricks
- Making art or painting
- Playing with the hose or water balloons outside
- Chalking art on the driveway or sidewalk
- Playing make believe or imaginary friend
- Creating a game
- Offering Busy Bags
- Making an interactive backyard
Don’t forget that unstructured outdoor play is as important as indoor play!
Book Recommendations on Unstructured Play