What Is Unstructured Play, And Why is it So Crucial for My Child?

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You may be familiar with unstructured play, an activity that can greatly enhance your child’s brain development while they have fun. How does it work? Well, you simply scrap the rules and let your child be the leader when it comes to playtime. It’s great for children because they can exercise, it boosts their cognition, and it lets them experiment with freedom. We’ll dive into how unstructured play is so critical for your child.

The Difference Between Structured and Unstructured Play

First of all, let’s define the difference between structured and unstructured play. If your children are playing hide and go seek, or tag, that’s structured play because there are clearly defined rules and outcomes to the game. If they are running around in the park playing make-believe, it’s considered unstructured because there are no guidelines and your child can creatively discover the game as it’s being played.

Here’s another example. Playing with blocks to create new shapes and figures is unstructured play, but following a step-by-step guide to building a model, the house is structured play. The difference is that the model controls how the child interacts with the blocks, whereas free play has no desired method. 

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The Benefits of No Rules Free Play

There are a lot of great outcomes in having unstructured play. Here are the top three.

Physical Exercise

For one, your child can get a lot of exercise playing outdoors with no rules. Children are drawn to nature and tend to have fun playing outside, so by letting them roam free, they can interact with their natural environment while getting a lot of energy out. This doesn’t mean you let them play unsupervised, but we recommend that you let them develop their own rules and try not to intervene in their games. Sure, structured games like sports provide exercise too, but some children don’t like to play sports and can use their imagination as a way to inspire running around and stretching their muscles. 

Cognitive Development

When children play without rules, they have to use more creative means to have fun, which increases neurological connections. Flexing their imagination and creativity allows children to develop their own sets of rules, methods, and outcomes for play, as well as proves a practice ground for problem-solving and decision making. Flexible brains are crucial to developing children, as it allows them to handle new or unexpected situations more easily. Plus, interacting with the same toys in new ways allows the brain to make different connections, which is helpful for further stages of development such as the teenage years.

Providing a Sense of Freedom

Another major benefit of unstructured play is that your child gets to practice being in control. Without having a parent or a teacher, or coach tell them what to do, the child gains a sense of freedom when they play. This is great for helping your child discover what activities they are naturally drawn to, what strengths they are interested in developing, and what facets of their personality they want to express. When children don’t get the chance to practice being in control, and instead have to follow rulesets in a majority of situations, it can actually lead to anxiety and depression later in life.

Final Thoughts

We highly recommend that your child experiences regular unstructured playtime so they are motivated to get exercise, flex their brains, and feel a sense of control. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to see what new games and modes of expression your child can come up with. We suggest you let your child be the leader in playtime more often so you can see their imagination at work.

Andy Earle
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.

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