Unstructured play: Why is it so important?

With society’s increased emphasis on academic standing, time for unstructured or free play has become less important to parents. Children’s schedules are filled with purpose-driven activities. Free play has lost its place in the home. Academic readiness in children has become a big focus. Therefore, structured and purpose-driven play has won the battle. Parents feel pressured to enroll their kids in many after-school activities. Consequently, free play takes a backseat in many households.

What is ‘free play’?

Photographer: NeONBRAND | Source: Unsplash

Free or unstructured play occurs when a child isn’t following any rules or guidelines. For example, drawing with chalk on the driveway, or when they’re busy building a fort or a castle form cardboard boxes or sheets on a couch or pretending to be a superhero flying across the garden. It’s the unstructured time during which children can act out their ideas, imaginary worlds, fantasies, or create their own rules and language and explore the world at their own pace.

Here’s the interesting thing – it just happens. As a parent, you don’t really formally schedule it as such. That kind of defeats the purpose! However, you do leave ‘space’ for it to happen.

The new norm

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment to undergraduate degrees increased by over 25% between 2000 and 2018. Certainly, society places more importance on higher education than ever before. Because of this, children are exposed to these types of activities as early as preschool, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a result, there is less playful learning for kids, and more purpose-driven play.

Photographer: Gabriel Tovar | Source: Unsplash

What are the benefits of unstructured play?

Child development theory has long ago recognized the importance of play. Two renowned psychologists of the 20th century – Vygotsky and Piaget – recognized that play was central to a child’s cognitive development.

Unstructured play is meaning play that isn’t directed by adults and doesn’t have a defined purpose or outcome, is so important. Not surprisingly, free play helps children’s emotional, physical and mental well-being, according to the American Psychological Association.

Particularly, play is very important for children during the pandemic as a stress relief measure, says educational psychologist Lauren McNamara.

Children can benefit from less structure altogether. Giving children the freedom to explore and make their own mistakes can help. (You can check out our blog post on overparenting here!)

The Canadian Public Health Association believes strongly in every child’s right to access free play. Play is important for learning and can foster creativity.

Among many benefits, the CPHA highlights these advantages:

  • It improves motor skills and general fitness
  • Promotes positive self-esteem
  • Formation and maintenance of friendships
  • Improve their emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy
  • Improved ability to communicate effectively
  • Better concentration, ability to stay on task, and memory retention
  • Develop coping skills and resilience

There is no doubt that children need unstructured play to thrive.

How can we integrate more unstructured play?

It is important to encourage children to take the lead during play. In particular, letting children choose what and how to play is beneficial for their development. Allowing kids to engage in “pretend play” can also be beneficial, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Alternatively, busy parents can incorporate playfulness into everyday activities. For example, letting your kids help with meal prep or house chores in a playful way can help.

You can get the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards for more ideas on unstructured play and the importance of play in children.

Happy Kids

Photographer: Alaric Sim | Source: Unsplash

Altogether, it turns out that allowing our children to run free with play is greatly beneficial – and can give parents a much-needed break. If we place less pressure on ourselves to fill our children’s time with extra-curricular activities, we may find that we have more time to focus on our own happiness. And our happiness is the best start to mindful parenting.

To get more ideas on free play, try these: