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The Incomparable Benefits of Unstructured Play

“Play is the way kids try the world on for size and imagine their place in it” – Raffi

Why is it that everything feels so choreographed these days?

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE routine.

It gives me structure – a way of organising my life – day-in-day-out.

And it’s great for kids! You can find out why in our blog: Why do some kids resist routine?

But there is a time and place for routine…

…and play isn’t one of them.

Because it turns out kids aren’t getting enough unstructured playtime.

But what is unstructured play? Why is it so important? And how come kids aren’t getting enough?

What is unstructured play?

Unstructured play is simply letting kids be kids.

It’s letting them use their imagination to create activities without adult guidance (or influence).

They can do it alone, or with their friends.

In the house, the garden or local green space.

And it’s usually FREE!

Unstructured play differs from structured activities in two key ways:

  1. There isn’t a specific learning outcome
  2. There is no instructor or leadership

Essentially, unstructured play is child-led, improvised, creative play (old-school playtime to you and me).

Why is it so important?

While structured activities like team sports and piano lessons have their place, the activities your kids invent have a unique impact on their social, emotional, and cognitive development.

According to the American Academy of Paediatricians (AAP), unstructured play is essential for healthy brain development.

It allows kids to learn about themselves and explore the world around them…

…providing a sense of freedom, control and self-confidence…

… allowing kids to use their imagination and creativity to discover and explore their interests…

… make mistakes and solve problems…

…on their own terms, in their own time, without pressure or objective(s).

In fact, it’s so important that the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends preschoolers engage in some form of unstructured play for an hour or more a day.

7 Benefits of Unstructured Play

Through unstructured play – both solo and with friends – kids develop and reinforce a number of life skills including:

  1. Creative thinking – thinking outside the box to solve problems. Creative thinking helps kids excel in the classroom, their careers and their hobbies.
  2. Conflict resolution – sharing and fair treatment of playmates. Conflict resolution teaches kids ethics, relationships and about treating people fairly.
  3. Decision making – Who does what, helps who or takes the lead? Decision making helps people take action and is key to strong leadership. 
  4. Problem-solving  – Problems are an everyday part of life. Problem-solving helps kids overcome everyday challenges and builds resilience.
  5. Negotiation – swapping, agreeing rules and responsibilities. Negotiation will help your kids learn about compromise and how to agree a solution.
  6. Resilience – things don’t always work out the way we hope. Resilience teaches kids about life’s ups and downs and the importance of perseverance. 
  7. Teamwork – playing with friends or siblings. Teamwork is an essential skill in play, family life, the classroom, workplace and in society! 

Why aren’t kids getting enough?

There are several factors:

Screen Time: Kids are spending more and more time on screens. According to the latest figures from Common Sense Media, teens regularly clock up nine hours screen media a day, while tweens consume around six hours. This leaves less time for unstructured play and other activities.

Health & Safety: It affects every aspect of your kid’s lives, from the toys they play with to what they can and can’t do in the playground. And many a childhood games have fallen afoul of Health and Safety legislation including tag, duck-duck-goose and conkers. Upshot: Kids miss out on being kids.

Structured Activities: We’re focussing more and more on giving our kids structured activities to the detriment of free play. Rather than let them explore during the holidays, we sent them to holiday camps. And there is an ever growing focus on academic and enrichment programs.

Hectic Routines: Family life just seems so much busier these days. And with more parents working part or full-time, it’s no wonder structured activities are increasing in popularity.

All these factors have contributed to a 50% reduction in unstructured play since the 1970’s, according to a report from the Alliance for Childhood.

And this has knock-on effects on our kid’s health and well-being too.

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Father and Son
7 Ways to Encourage Unstructured Playtime

  1. Head outdoors. Spending time outside gives your child a variety of stimuli to get their imaginations flowing. Visit your local park. Hang a tire swing in your backyard. Keep a box full of frisbees, jump ropes, and other outdoor toys close to hand.
  2. Arrange the furniture. If space permits, arrange your child’s bedroom to incorporate a play area or find space in your home. You might want to arrange a table and chairs for crafts and reading. Paint a hopscotch diagram on the floor. Get them involved in the planning and creation.
  3. Choose simple toys. Cardboard boxes and wooden blocks for young kids, and construction sets and models for older ones! These simple toys encourage your kids to take their initiative rather than following instructions. Put the money you save into their college account!
  4. Encourage experimentation. Expose your kids to a wide variety of activities. Some kids will be in a better position to discover their true passions if they try out ice skating, dancing, and art – rather than specialising in one or two areas too soon.
  5. Set limits on screen time. Paediatricians recommend limiting screen time so tech use does not hinder participation in other activities. Schedule screen time around those important daily activities and prioritise how your child spends their screen time.  Find out more in our blog: The Incomparable Benefits of Unstructured Play.
  6. Seek balance. Academics, youth clubs, and free play are all valuable. Try to achieve a balance between unstructured play and more structured activities.
  7. Find Time. It can be hard to find time to fit everything in your crazy schedule, but making time for unstructured play is well worth the effort!

 My play guilty pleasure

When I was a nipper, my favourite unstructured play activity was “Robot Cats”.

I’ve no idea what the name came from but essentially I was a cat, with artificial appendages (legs and a tail for clarification), on a spaceship.

My bunk bed (the single variety with pull-out desk) resembled a space shuttle, and my soft toys were my crew (Honey the Bear was second-in-command).

We fought off aliens, explored hostile planets (my sister’s bedroom) and raided supplies from the alien depo (the kitchen). No prizes for guessing who the aliens were.

And when my friends or cousins turned up for the day, they joined in too! Sometimes, even my sister was allowed to join the crew (sometimes, but rarely on days ending in ‘y’).

Help your kids to reach their full potential and enjoy life more. Carve out plenty of time for free play and you’ll see the benefits today, and in the future.

So over to you? What was your favourite play guilty pleasure when you were young? And what about your kids? We’d love to hear them!

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