Why is Unstructured Play So Important?

4 minute read

Written by

Rita Sverdlova, OTR/L

While structured activities, like a game of soccer or a swim lesson, are essential for children's development, they aren’t the only way to learn. In fact, unstructured play time serves as a key complement to more structured experiences. Children need both types of play for well-rounded growth. Parents and caregivers should encourage and support unstructured playtime for kids to reap these valuable benefits.

Unstructured play is play that is self-directed, spontaneous, and free from adult direction or structure. It can take many forms, including imaginative play, physical play, and social play. These activities allow children to explore and experiment with their environment, interact with others, and develop their own interests and preferences.

The experience of unstructured play is an essential aspect of children's development. Do you remember a time when, as a child, you were left to your own devices? These moments of “random” games are opportunities for creative freedom and instinctive learning. As parents and caregivers, it’s as important to support and encourage unstructured play as it is to ensure children participate in rule-based activities.

The Benefits of Unstructured Play

Hanging out aimlessly at an indoor playground may seem like a waste of time, but unstructured play is linked to many important benefits for children. These include improved creativity, problem-solving skills, and better social-emotional development. When children engage in activities they find personally meaningful, they’re developing a sense of autonomy and independence. Free play time often also provides opportunities for physical activity, which builds strength alongside gross and fine motor skills. Here are just a few of the benefits of free play.

Creativity and Imagination

Unstructured play allows children to tap into their imagination and creativity. Without specific rules or guidelines, children can freely explore and create their own scenarios and stories, fostering innovative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Self-Discovery and Independence

When children have the freedom to make their own choices, they learn more about their interests, preferences, and strengths, promoting a sense of autonomy and independence.

Emotional Regulation

Play serves as a natural outlet for emotions. When playing freely, children can express their feelings, both positive and negative, in a safe and constructive way, helping them manage emotions and develop emotional intelligence.

Social Skills

When kids engage in unstructured play with peers, they learn vital social skills like negotiation, compromise, sharing, and communication. It helps them build friendships and develop empathy for others.

Cognitive Skills

When children are playing without predefined rules, they have to engage in problem-solving, critical thinking, and independent decision-making during their imaginative play scenarios.

The Role of Parents and Caregivers

Parents and caregivers play an important role in supporting and encouraging unstructured play in children. This can be as simple as taking your kids to a local indoor playground and letting them roam free. When you’re providing a safe and supportive environment for play with toys and materials that encourage creativity and imagination, you’re letting your kids know you value this experience.

It’s also important to set aside time for play on a regular basis. Often, parents and caregivers are tempted to over-schedule children's time. It’s important, though, to show enthusiasm for play and engage in imaginative play with children instead of rushing to the next afterschool class. Be a playful role model, and your child is more likely to embrace unstructured play. Remember, sometimes unstructured play can get messy, especially with art projects or sensory play. Embrace the mess as part of the learning experience and have cleaning routines in place.

How can you foster unstructured play time?

There are a number of practical strategies that parents and caregivers can use to support unstructured play in children. It can be as easy as providing open-ended toys (think blocks, balls, and art supplies) or creating a dedicated play space that is free from distractions and interruptions. Setting aside regular time for play each day and getting involved in children's play in a supportive and non-directive way is also key.

Remember that every child is unique, and their preferences for play may differ. Some children might naturally gravitate towards unstructured play, while others may need gentle encouragement. The goal is to provide a supportive environment that allows children the freedom to explore, create, and have fun on their terms.

Free, child-driven play is an essential aspect of children's development. Parents and caregivers have an important role to play in supporting and encouraging this type of exploration. By providing a safe and supportive environment for play, and allowing children to explore and experiment in their own way, we can help to promote healthy development and well-being in our children.

At PlayWell Brooklyn, an inclusive indoor playspace, we provide opportunities for structured activities, as well as free play time with endless toys and activities. Bring your kids to PlayWell to experience the joys and benefits of unstructured play. Book now or get in touch to learn more about our space and offerings.