Balancing Unstructured Free Play with Structured Play Time

October 20, 2015

Play is incredibly important to the development of children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, as well as creativity and imagination. Play is essential to brain development and the development of certain reasoning abilities. Additionally, a lack of free, spontaneous play can be harmful to developing a child.

— Lisa Murphy, Early Childhood Specialist and CEO of Ooey Gooey Inc.

What Does Unstructured Free Play Mean?

Structured play, also referred to as “play with a purpose,” focuses on a specific learning objective with instructor-led activities. This covers a variety of activities such as games, puzzles, assembling a toy and even organized sports where children follow a set of directions or instructions to accomplish a goal.

Unstructured free play_drawingUnstructured free play, on the other hand, is open-ended without set rules or objectives, opening up a world of unlimited possibilities. These activities are things such as drawing or painting freehand, inventing a game, playing with blocks, dolls or trucks, engaging in imaginary play as well as playground activities.

Children should have a balance of both structured and unstructured play activities.


Why Playtime Is An Essential Part Of Childhood Development

Are you worried whether your child is getting as much playtime as you did when you were younger? Are you wondering if the way your child plays is normal for its age?

Why do Children Need Unstructured Free Play?

Children need to experience and engage in open-ended activities. Why? Because open-ended, unstructured play lets a child make his or her own path to get to the end result. It gets them asking questions, stimulates their curiosity, and engages their imagination.  This is vital to cognitive development.  If we always give a child a beginning, middle and an end, he or she primarily follows the instructions, asking few if any questions.


In school, one of the primary ways for children to engage in unstructured play time is on the playground. Some kids will go out and climb, pretending to be pirates above the ocean. Others will jump on the swings pretending they are astronauts, while some may just hang back, watching how things work.

Yet others revel in the dirt. They dig. They pick up rocks. They get dirty. This play teaches them through their senses – feeling the texture of the rocks, looking at the colors and even smelling the dirt.

Unstructured free play gives kids the opportunity to solve their own problems. A child may go through some sort of trial and error process, or deductive reasoning, before figuring out what works. For instance, maybe a young child isn’t able to climb the ladder to the slide. They have a choice to make. They could stand there and cry, ask someone for help, or figure out how to get up that ladder.

Don’t Dismiss the Benefits of Unstructured Free Play

According to a report from American Academy of Pediatrics, unstructured free play is critical to child development.

  • Undirected play helps children learn how to work collaboratively, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills.
  • When play is child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover areas of interests on their own, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
  • Play and unscheduled time that allows for peer interactions is an important component of social-emotional learning.
  • Free, child-driven, creative play protects against the effects of pressure and stress.

With the push for more classroom time in school and more organized activities outside of school, it is vital for teachers and parents to find time for unstructured free play.

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Jami Murdock Jami Murdock

Jami has been an early childhood educator for 25 years. She operated an “in home” daycare center for 13 years and has been teaching preschool for the past 12 years. She has experience working with children on the autism spectrum and sensory processing dysfunction. Jami presents on “How Important are Playground Activities to a Child’s Success in the Classroom.” Her passion is her family and her work with children.

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