The Benefits of Unstructured Play for Children

In today’s world, allotting time for unstructured play is one of the most important things you can do for them. In fact, children spend more than seven hours glued to a screen but only 4-7 minutes actively engaged in outdoor play.

While unstructured play doesn’t necessarily need to take place outdoors, it does engage children in active and imaginative play. It allows them to learn about themselves and the world around them in a way they cannot when activities are directed and orderly.

What’s Unstructured Play?

Unstructured play is unplanned, creative play where children make up their own rules. This type of play can happen anywhere, and it doesn’t require any special equipment or toys — although sometimes simple props can be used. During unstructured play, children are encouraged to explore their imaginations and learn problem-solving skills. 

Examples of Unstructured Play

There are many different types of unstructured play. Here are some examples:

  • Playing outside games
  • Drawing with chalk on the sidewalk
  • Building towers out of blocks
  • Making up a dance routine
  • Playing on playground equipment
  • Telling stories

Why Is Unstructured Play Important?

Unstructured play is an integral part of child development, allowing exploration of their environment with creativity and wonder. It also allows children to practice creative thinking, self-regulation and stress reduction, and is an opportunity for children to make friends. 

Problem-Solving Skills

Unstructured play helps children to develop their problem-solving skills. When left to play independently, they face challenges and obstacles. To overcome these challenges, they will need to use their problem-solving skills. During free playtime, children often come up with their own ideas, allowing them to solve problems without adult supervision.

Creative Thinking

When you give children the freedom to play without rules or structure, they use their imagination to generate new ideas. To help facilitate creative thinking, parents should limit children’s screen time. “Bored” children will use their creative thinking to fill the gaps in their schedules.

Social Skills

Unstructured play gives children the opportunity to interact with each other, teaching them how to communicate and work together. As children develop listening and sharing skills, while also building empathy and acceptance of others’ feelings, they learn to take turns, share ideas, and learn social rules during unstructured play — skills they will need as they grow older.

Stress Reduction

Unstructured play can help children develop a sense of purpose and belonging, helping improve mental health. It can help children reduce stress and improve their physical activity levels, while developing a positive self-image and improving self-esteem. While play is often physical, it actually releases the relaxing hormones oxytocin and serotonin, and helps children cope with stress by allowing them to focus on creative outlets.

Barriers to Unstructured Play

Research on unstructured play shows limitations to its widespread use in society. The primary barriers are the lack of access to both natural and man-made play spaces. Extracurricular activities have taken over children’s free time, and many schools have eliminated recess periods. But there is still a place for free play and its contributions to better academic, emotional, and social outcomes. 

How Much Creative Play Does My Child Need?

Most experts recommend that children have at least 60 minutes of unstructured playtime each day, free from electronic screens and organized activities. It’s important to let kids choose their own activities and explore at their own pace. Fostering creativity and critical thinking in children will help them be successful in their studies, careers, and hobbies.

Unstructured Play Ideas

If you’re looking for ways to encourage unstructured play, here are ten fun ideas:

  1. Build a fort
  2. Play in the park or on a playground
  3. Play with water
  4. Play tag or hide-and-seek
  5. Draw or paint
  6. Make a sculpture out of natural materials
  7. Play music
  8. Have a picnic
  9. Fly a kite
  10. Go on a nature walk

There are also a variety of toys and games your child can engage in to encourage unstructured play. The most important thing is to give children the freedom to play without rules or structure.

Let Children Use Items in New Ways

Utilizing items in nontraditional ways isn’t just a life hack – it’s a way to foster creativity and imagination. “Divergent thought” is the process of creating multiple, unique ideas through spontaneous, free-flowing thinking that ignores conventional ways of doing things. Encouraging children to be divergent thinkers teaches them to explore all possible solutions to a problem.

Think Outside the (Sand) Box

When it comes to possibilities, the sandbox is the ultimate blank canvas. Sand is a wonderful manipulative that has endless opportunities for fun and learning. The children can create whatever the eye sees and the mind imagines.

Slide into Science

The classic playground slide is an ideal candidate for unleashing creativity. Children are naturally curious about gravity and its effects, and they’ll soon realize they aren’t the only thing that can slide down! A word of caution: the hill slide should be supervised, especially when objects such as balls are zooming down the slide.

Play it Safe

Tag is a classic game, and a wonderful physical activity that develops fundamental movement skills. Variations like freeze tag, choosing multiple taggers, and setting boundaries are simple variations that keep things fresh. Another version we are fond of involves “safe zones” – items or places you cannot be tagged. Getting in (and out of) these safe zones can be a challenge that involves strategy and planning.

Create an Environment to Foster Unstructured Play

The benefits of unstructured play are clear. It is critical for children to engage in play to develop essential skills they will use throughout their lives. Explore the resources available to you to learn more ways to engage your children or students in unstructured play.

Creative, engaging play equipment can help nurture your child’s imagination. Contact us today via our web form or call (800) 541-1954 to discuss the many options we offer.

We strive to create fun and informative content that will help young children learn and grow. However, it's important to keep in mind that all activities should be performed under the supervision of an adult. The Adventurous Child website is intended to serve as a reference and guidance for educational activities, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the parent, guardian, and/or educator to determine the appropriateness of the activity for their child’s age and maturity level. Thank you for your understanding and support!