Unstructured Play- Why Children Need to Play Without Us!

Author: Kim Tabler

Take a moment to think about your own childhood. What did you do after school? What did it sound like? Who was there? How did it feel? And most importantly, how did you decide what to do?

Now fast forward to your own child’s experience. What does he or she do after school? What does it sound like? Who is there? How does it feel? And how does your child decide what to do?

Research shows that for most people, the answers to these sets of questions are wildly different. In the last 50 years, children’s after-school time has gone from unstructured, child-directed play and activity to toys, organized after-school activities and sports, and schoolwork. Modern parents’ concerns about safety and a sense of achievement has created a culture of directed, structured activities. What does this shift mean for our children?

First, let’s define unstructured play.

According to Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College, free, unstructured play is play that a child undertakes himself, directs on his own and has an end in itself. Missing from this definition – scheduled, adult-directed, focused on a product or end result.

A quick internet search will yield a myriad of results about the effects of the shift from this kind of unstructured free play to adult-directed activities. An increase in childhood anxiety, stress, depression and obesity can all be attributed to the influence of an achievement-orientated culture that requires children to excel in all the activities provided to them by adults. In addition to the more familiar burdens our children bear, there are even more far-reaching effects of excessive structured time.

Children in school today are less able to regulate their own behavior, make effective decisions about how to use their time, adapt to changing environments and solve social conflicts appropriately. The long term effects of a decline in these kinds of executive functioning skills cannot be understated. As these children become adolescents and adults who have not been able to practice managing their own behavior and time, their impulsivity and lack of problem-solving skills will have a much more significant effect on their lives and on the world.

Some interesting research about what happens when children are involved in mostly adult-directed activities:

Old-fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

Study: Too Many Structured Activities May Hinder Children’s Executive Functioning

The Need for Play

But there is hope! Unstructured play provides the opportunity to practice the skills that are fading from our current culture. When children are able to make their own decisions about what they are playing, when they play and who their playmates are, they are more likely to express satisfaction with their life; they are better able to solve problems and think creatively; and they are more effective at regulating their own behavior and time. As it turns out, all the things we remember doing as children – pretending, making up rules and games, creating and exploring – were more beneficial than we ever realized!

So how can we advocate for our children and take back some of their time for unstructured play?

The first step is to take a hard look at your child’s schedule. How much time does your child spend doing things he or she is directed to do by an adult? How much time does your child spend creating his own play environment and making his own decisions? How do your child and your family feel at the end of a day? Be sure that there is time on the calendar for your child to be immersed in true, rich, unstructured play – without having to be tied to the clock and without unwanted input from an adult. Ask your child what she wants to do!

Once you have carved out some time for unstructured play, try it without toys! Find an open space outside and see what your child might discover. See what happens when you invite him to play with just “loose parts” – items he can move and change in his own way, such as nuts and bolts, blankets and boxes  or other recycled materials. You will be amazed at the problem solving and creativity that blossoms when your child can use these kinds of materials in more than one way.

Find like-minded families who can share unstructured play times with you and your child. Children reap the benefits of cooperative play when there are open spaces without a lot of toys and distractions. Friends can practice sharing, negotiating and resolving social conflicts when given their own space and time.

When children have been given time and space to explore their own interests without imposing adult structure on their play, they have endless opportunities to practice and nurture the higher level skills that we all hope for their future. And it all happens while having fun!

Some great resources on the benefits of unstructured play time and how to incorporate it into your child’s day:

Top 5 Ways Children Develop Through Play

Playing With Your child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence

Make Time For Play: How To Balance Structured And UnstructuredPlay