What is Unstructured Play?

Unstructured or free play especially outdoors helps busy kids thrive at school. This is exciting stuff for parents who want to wean their kids from too much screen watching. Unstructured play is open-ended, fun and has endless possibilities.

Unstructured play can happen indoors or outdoors. However, the outdoors may provide more opportunities. Natural props such as trees, streams and trails invite discovery and exploration.

As a child I spent lots of time playing outdoors with my brother and sister. Once we decided to stage a comedy act in our backyard. We sectioned off a corner of the yard. My brother piled a dozen caps on his head and painted his mouth red. My sister and I raided our mother’s closet. Every kid in the neighbourhood showed up.

Perhaps you played hopscotch or hide and seek outdoors. Perhaps you planned adventures like building a tree house or camping in the backyard. Aren’t these moments of unstructured play in your childhood memorable?

“Giving children the freedom to develop their own games improves their social skills and reasoning,” writes Melinda Ham, journalist.

Want to read more about it? Then check out: http://www.essentialkids.com.au/activities/games/the-importance-of-play-20120325-1vtbr#ixzz4be39CHaV

Structured play is the kind of play where there is an adult present who plans how the play will proceed. For e.g. team sports or dance classes are structured. Playing Monopoly, Guess Who, Scrabble or Let’s Go Fishin’ with your child are structured. Board games also have rules to follow.

Young children can profit from open-ended time where they are in their parents’ vicinity, but have some flexibility in the course of the play. Older children can be given more leeway and own the activity.

However, a healthy mix of both kinds of activities is most likely the best. It seems children benefit more when there is a balance of structured and unstructured activities.

In the March 2017 issue of Scientific American Mind, Melinda Moyer shares with us why a mix is important:

“Free play certainly has a time and a place, scientists say. But it also has limits—when similarly aged kids play together, they can get into a rut and act out scenarios over and over again. . . . Scaffolded [guided] play is more important and useful than it used to be, researchers say, because kids are not having the same type of rich play experiences they had in decades past. Generations ago kids spent hours a day outside playing with mixed-age groups of neighbourhood children. The oldest boys and girls modelled and taught the younger ones more sophisticated forms of play.”

At the same time Silken Laumann, the well-known Canadian Olympic athlete, is passionate about unstructured play. She believes that it engages children and makes them creative members of society.

In her book Child’s Play, Laumann mentions how her assistant came up with a simple remedy. She set aside a block of time each week for unstructured play. The result? Her kids played basketball before breakfast, ran and danced, and used their imaginations more.

“Why might we need to loosen up and get over some of our fears in order to get our kids outdoor unstructured playtime?” [. . .] Unstructured play frequently comes from or results in exposure to the outdoors. Surveys of parents and teachers report that children’s focus and attention are improved after outdoor physical activity and free play and some small studies suggest that time spent outdoors improves focus in children with ADHD.”

Simply stated, unstructured play helps kids to relate meaningfully with others and to the world around them. Isn’t that what we all what for our kids?

Play helps to boost Mindfulness

Mindfulness has amazing benefits. New breakthroughs in research by neuroscientists confirm this. Practicing mindfulness is helpful because it makes us notice our current state of mind. Is our mind agitated, distracted, bored or is it calm?

How many times have you caught yourself mourning the past or worrying about the future? We all squander our time and energy by getting stressed out in this way. Mindfulness helps to bring our focus back to the present.

When we are mindful we are aware of the here and now. We pay more attention to the present moment. After all it’s the only time that is alive and real through our senses (what we see, hear, taste, smell, feel and think).

Everyone can benefit from being more mindful in their daily lives: Caregivers, teachers and parents. But it is not only adults that can benefit; pediatricians and educators are finding children can too.

Mindfulness helps to ground kids and to engage them to the present. They notice what is inside them and around them in their immediate environment both in the classroom or at home. Mindful kids are not bullies.

Mindfulness can give children the tools to improve their abilities to:

a) calm down when they are upset,

b) slow down and avoid hurry sickness,

c) pay attention both at school and at home,

d) to listen better: A skill that is necessary to becoming a good and kind friend.

To play a game you have to learn the rules. Children are quite prepared to commit themselves and enjoy the effort required to learn them. A number of studies show that play improves their ability to remember.

Everyone agrees that play is all about de-stressing, having fun, feeling good, and connecting to others. When we help children to approach mindfulness in a playful way, they are more likely to absorb the information. As a result it is more meaningful for them.

There are many mindfulness games out there that can help to develop this skill.If helping your children to become more mindful through play interests you, here are two games you can start with.

1. Mindful Games Activity Cards by Susan Kaiser Greenland with Annaka Harris. There are 55 5×7 cards each devoted to a game or activity. Coming in April 2017 by Shambhala Publications. To learn more visit:

2. Here is another mindful game that doesn’t require much prep and is fun for kids. Jocelyn Greene says:

“I love this game because it combines play and mindfulness. It boosts brainpower and at the same time gets some great laughs out of your kids! The good news it requires very little ‘stuff’ to make this game fun.”

The Game in Brief
• Pick five-ten objects that are fun to touch.
• Put the objects in separate bowls.
• Blindfold kids (either one at a time or all together).
• Ask kids to describe what they are feeling.

To find out more about the game visit:

I am sure we will all agree that helping kids to learn mindfulness through play is more effective and more fun.


The Power of Play

Play has the power to change the world. Play shakes the world in ways that become apparent only when we take the time to look a little closer and deeper. Let’s consider these facts:

(1) The truth is that the world is not a pretty place. As President Obama mentioned in an article in the Atlantic magazine in the April 2016 issue, “I also believe that the world is a tough complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy.”

(2) Bullying and strife are ubiquitous in our communities and schools.

One strategy to make the world a better, fairer, more just place and to promote democratic values that serve everyone’s interests is education. It fosters understanding, which leads to peace and prosperity.

Another strategy a body of research is highlighting recently is play. Play allows kids to connect with others who are very different from them. Through play children learn how different things can look depending on whose shoes they are in.

Like reading fiction play teaches empathy by employing the imagination. It breaks down the barrier of the self between what us me and not me. Our modern world is complicated. It is a hundred shades of grey. Play engages our kids and prevents them from being cocksure, which leads to black-and-white thinking.

Playing together and having fun will help them to become adults who are less likely to fall into the mindset of bullies. We know that connecting with others is an important life skill for both success and happiness.

In our multidimensional world, it is easy to dismiss play as a time stealer and to consider time that is spent learning the alphabet or numbers as far more important than time spent playing ball.

Listen to what the pediatricians are saying:

“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.”

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and …

Doesn’t it just blow your mind? Here is another remark from Christine Carter, PH.D. , from her book raising Happiness.

“Increased emotional intelligence and social skills contribute dramatically to children’s school success. Play increases the odds that kids will be persistent and stay engaged in difficult classroom tasks, helping them become more involved learners.”

And yet a third—this is an important one, it’ll change how you think about play:

“Play is the lifeblood of childhood—it brings children joy. It nurtures and excites their creativity, it builds social skills and it strengthens their bodies.” Silken Laumann, from her book Child’s Play

Isn’t this what we all want for our children? So let’s try to make a conscious commitment to allow more time for play in our kids’ weekly schedule. Small changes can make a big difference.

Do your children yalp?




Why is Social Play so important?

You are a good observer aren’t you? As a parent we have to be good observers. If we take the time to listen to our kids, it becomes clear that our kids are also capable of bullying.

This happened to a friend of mine. She went to pick up her child from daycare. When she walked into the room, her son had a nasty pout on his face and was gesturing fiercely to his playmate. The instant he saw his mother walk in through the door, he crouched on the floor and pretended to be sick. The truth is that social skills, just like cognitive skills such as focus and a good memory, must be acquired.

There is no magic formula to raising bright, well-adjusted kids, but if anything can come close, play is the answer. Play improves social skills without a doubt. Kids learn to contribute to groups, which fosters goodwill and later on the spirit of volunteerism. They learn to cope with frustration when others don’t do what they want. They also learn to express their needs. Child psychologists, pediatricians, and education specialists find that kids who spend time outside playing with other kids are more socially competent with both peers and adults.

Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits of social play. Children learn to:

• negotiate roles like asking each other, “Who’s going to keep the score?”

• discuss the rules of the game with team members,

• navigate the ins and outs of finding and sharing the equipment or toys with siblings,

• co-operate and learn to be part of a team. This includes knowing how to lose and to play by the rules, sharing, and taking turns, “It’s your turn.”

Listen to this remark overheard in a playground, “What’s wrong with you? Everyone must see it,” it makes us think, doesn’t it?

Kids also acquire friendship skills. Bonding requires both politeness and some patience, and a “let’s play” attitude. It helps to fight the problem of bullying in our playgrounds and schools.

How can we get our children off the couch and get them to be more active without coming across as being pushy? Silken Laumann, the famous Canadian Olympian, in her book Child’s Play offers us a doable solution from her own experience.

“ . . . if I wanted my kids to play in the park, why not invite some local kids to come and play with them one night a week? Surely I could find a few other willing parents to help me supervise—”

Laumann realized that she had to take the initiative and do something about it if she was unsatisfied with the lack of social outdoor interaction among the kids in her neighbourhood. To her surprise, when she did approach the other parents, they all agreed that it was a great idea.

During play, children also increase their social competence and emotional maturity. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) contend that school success largely depends on children’s ability to interact positively with their peers and adults. Play is vital to children’s social development.




The Social Benefits of Play, Part II

We need to feel that we belong to a family, a social circle, or a religious group as members, just as we need food and air. It can be such a powerful force for children that they will often do cruel things in order to be accepted by a group. This happens when children witness others being bullied and join in or remain silent. It takes courage and empathy to speak up.

Social Play nurtures empathy. Children are more likely to be sorry when they do hurt another child either on purpose or by accident. A common form of bullying is verbal abuse. For example, taunting which is often disguised as jokes, stems from a sense of desire to dominate and makes the target child feel humiliated.

Barbara Coloroso tells us in her book the bully, the bullied and the bystander, “They [bullies] find it hard to see a situation from another person’s vantage point . . . are only concerned with their own wants and pleasures, and not the needs, rights or feelings of others. ”

Bullying is more prevalent than we think. The truth is we are more likely to turn a blind eye when our child is the instigator. Being aware of the problem and knowing that there is something that can be done about it is the first step.

One way to reduce bullying is in encouraging our children to play with their peers. Social play teaches responsibility through freedom.

Ours is a precept driven society. You can’t drive your car in a red light, you can’t cheat on your income tax, you can’t swear at your boss. Social play is an excellent way for kids to learn precept on their own. Kids love games because of the structure, or the rules.

At the same time, kids love games and sports because of the freedom of space they enjoy in the great outdoors. Both games and sports provide a boundary for exuberance. Games teach kids that “you can go full tilt, but you have to follow the rules.”

“ . . . the playground is a complex social network where kids learn valuable everyday life lessons about interacting with others, social norms and independence, all while gaining important relationship-building skills.“





The Internet, video games and social media are now a part of everyday life. They are not going to go away. Most of us will agree that they are not inherently evil.

It really depends how they are used. We have to teach our kids to exercise moderation — to use them, not abuse them. It’s tempting to pull rank and lay down the rules.

To be fair, we should really give them a chance to control the length of time on their own. The problem is when kids spend too much time alone on the computer they can grow up in a bubble. As a result they may not grow up into caring adults who show empathy. Social play helps children learn to be nice to each other.

“They can practice give-and-take, sharing power, empathizing, being assertive, compromising, and handling rejection, and when they’re ready, begin to take these skills on the road. ” The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy. D.

How does play contribute to social skills?

  • Conflict rears its ugly head in ongoing play. Playing together is only possible when children learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and resolve issues that have to do with sharing space and equipment.

On the playground we may hear a child say to another ‘it’s my turn’,  ‘you can’t butt in front of someone‘, ‘you can use my bat’ or the loud yell when someone misbehaves.

  • Social play makes kids more flexible and accepting of different points of view. The realization that there is more than one point of view is a part of the maturation process.
  • Children learn that freedom stops when it affects the rights of others.
  • Social Play leads to bonding: Friendships develop impromptu. If you take the time to listen to the voices of children playing together spontaneously, you can hear the laughter, the joy, and the screams of delight.
  • Playing together teaches kids the difference between standing up for yourself and stepping on others. In many cultures, children are deprived of play by authoritarian parents or a strict milieu.

The sad fact is that social evils stem from the fact that many adults do not know the difference between self-assertion and aggression. This is why the opportunity for social play is so important.

But this is not all; social play confers other benefits, which we will learn about in my next post.

“Play contributes to the development of self-regulation and social skills such as turn-taking, collaboration and following rules, empathy, and motivation (Bodrova & Leong, 2007; Krafft & Berk, 1998). ” (What are some of the benefits of play for young children?)


Creative play three water sprites



Play Nurtures Creativity, Part III

Did you know that the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial? As a parent there are many simple things we can do to help our children become more creative when they are at play. For instance, we can:
1. Take the time to listen to our children. Some activities may fizzle when we allow them to take the lead in creative play, but at other times we will be surprised. If they are stumped, we can offer suggestions. This helps to get the kick-start needed.

Asking questions to elicit how they feel about the activity also helps.The questions should be open-ended rather than closed. Did they enjoy it? What did they like the best? Was there something else they would rather do? What would make it even better?“

My number one tip for parents is to slow down and just spend time listening to our children. Listen to them play, listen to their questions, listen to the way they interact with other children; just listen.” Mariah Bruehl, Playful Learning

2. Support their choices, resisting the urge to interfere and tell our children what to do. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shares this memory with us in his autobiographical book, Common Ground, “My mother insisted on broadening our horizons in other directions. When I was six years old, she enrolled me in a ballet class . . . I hated the whole idea and rebelled at being dragged to ballet class until the day my mother was forced to literally pull me through the door of 24 Sussex while I kicked and screamed. ”

3. Set aside a block of time for creative play at least once a week, preferably on the same day of the week. Setting up a routine makes it easier to get into the flow. This includes the time to think up, work on and revise ideas at an individual pace for a pet project.

4. Create child-friendly spaces. A corner of the den, the basement or even the garage is a wonderful zone for a child to play as the whim strikes. All that is needed in this space are a few props. Curiosity and wonder will do the rest. Here are a few samples:
a) paints, colour pencils, sketch pads, construction paper, glue and scissors.
b) props such as costumes, masks or foam swords for a make-believe adventure quest.
c) musical instruments such as a flute, a tambourine, an ukulele or a xylophone.
d) Lego, cardboard cartons, or even a broken-down computer or a camera that can be used as ‘creative junk’.

5. Invite creativity into our home. Awesome questions like these spark creative thinking.
– Any bright ideas for this weekend?
– Shall we go to the zoo or the museum?
– What do you want to do on your birthday?

We want to give our children rich and diverse play experiences that ultimately form the raw material of creativity rather than ground rules to follow. The key is to emphasize the process rather than the result.

For more information visit:
parents.com/11 Activities to Encourage Creativity
Greatergood.berkerely.edu/7 ways to foster creativity in your kids



Play Nurtures Creativity, Part II

Every child has the potential to be creative. However on the basis of random tests in the sixties children were put into “creative” or “uncreative” boxes, which stunted their ability. As a result of ongoing research by psychologists and educators in the last two decades, we now know that:

  1. Creativity is a skill that can be developed. For children it is almost impossible without a stimulating environment or support from the grownups around them. It starts with an appreciation for creative activities in the home.
  1. Instilling a sense of wonder is part of the process. It is this sense of wonder that leads to the desire for exploration of the world. Children are naturally curious. They can enjoy the magic of a captivating sunset or a monarch butterfly without prompting. We can be there to help provide a deeper understanding. We don’t need to have all the answers. There are so many wonderful resources available out there.
  1. Creative thinking is about learning to connect the dots and finding patterns in the natural world. For example, the large, round, orange object that moves when you touch it becomes a plastic ball. The ability to think abstractly is another form of imagining and begins to develop shortly after we are born.

Here are a few ideas that can help our kids become more creative when they are at play.

  1. Take the time to listen.
  2. Support their choices.
  3. Set aside a block of time for play.
  4. Set aside a kids’ zone.
  5. Emphasize the process of creativity.

“The play context is ideal for supporting children’s creative and imaginative thought because it offers a risk-free environment. ”   Education.com

Fostering children’s creativity can be as simple as providing them with a few materials and then allowing them to expand the activity in a direction of their own volition. Amazing things can happen. If you still are not convinced, see the video of Caine’s Arcade at:


In the next post we will learn a little more how to make these ideas doable when life gets crowded with too many “to-dos.” The message that our kids should get is, “Have fun and explore.” The project may turn out to be a dud, but the upside is that they will learn from it.

Creative Play



Play Nurtures Creativity

We want out children to grow up to be happy and successful in life. One of the best tools we can give our children to cope with the challenges that lie ahead is creativity.

How can we give our children this gift? Recognizing that play nurtures creativity is the first step. This is especially true of play that draws on the child’s imagination. Play is a close friend of imagination and innovation.

In the book The Creative Spirit, Goleman, Kaufman and Ray tell us that, “The psychological pressures that inhibit a child’s creativity occur early in life. Most children . . . love being in school. They are excited about exploring and learning. But by the time they are in the third or fourth grade, many don’t like school, let alone have any sense of pleasure in their own creativity.”

Some things that rob creativity are easy enough to avoid for parents.  Here are some things that we should not do.

  1. Use extrinsic rewards such as toys. Rewards take the focus away from the creative process, and affect the ability to think things through. When children enjoy the activity, they don’t need to be motivated with incentives such as candy or pocket money.
  1. Decide which activities they should do. It’s better to let them follow their own predilection. In a hectic life it isn’t always easy to take the time to listen to what our children have to say. Perhaps we can start by giving them some breathing space, rather then micromanaging.
  1. Tell kids how to do things every step of the way. The creative urge is blocked when children are under constant observation. Even providing them with too many toys and games turns them into passive players. Children need some time to explore their own ideas.
  1. Push our children to succeed. Sometimes in our eagerness to give children a head start in school, we set up our children to fail. We expect them to learn to read or to solve math problems before they are ready, which may turn kids off completely. A simple question like “Did you have fun?” engages them and helps to emphasize the process.
  1. Compare our children to their peers or other members of the family. Remember how we felt when we ourselves were the target of such barbs? The best kind of competition is when children are competing against themselves, and are allowed to thrive at their own pace.

“Importance of the Creative Process: All children need to be truly creative is the freedom to commit themselves completely to the effort and make whatever activity they are doing their own. What’s important in any creative act is the process of self-expression.”

For more information, visit: www.pbs.org/wholechild/providers/play.html











Raising Creative Kids

Did you ever stop to think? The world you see outside your window is no ordinary world. It is full of the marvels of science and technology. Everything that you see around you today was initially an idea in the mind of someone who saw possibilities that others did not.

The curious thing is that these inventors and innovators were just having fun following their own peculiar bent of mind. They pursued a free-flowing activity that gave them pleasure at their own pace.  In other words they were at play.

We are now beginning to understand the vital link between play and creativity. Experts tell us that this ability is there in children, but it needs to be nurtured or it will diminish with age. Creativity is a fusion of both work and play. When children play, they are indeed working because they are learning.

At one time it was thought that only a few lucky people were born creative. Either you had the gift or you didn’t. This is indeed true of being a genius. The good news is that current theories of creativity recognize that all children have creative potential.

It is more a skill, like learning to ride a bicycle, and it is a skill parents can help their children develop. For creativity to flourish children need the freedom to explore and to own the activity.

As parents we can support the activity so that children can take it in the direction they choose. By doing this they become game designers rather than just game players who simply follow the rules. They are free to exercise their own imagination and invent something new. For e.g. a paper carton can become part of a video arcade, a tree house, a post office, maybe even a fire truck or a car.

Raising creative kids is not a major challenge. It’s a matter of a few simple adjustments in our own attitude. In the next post we’ll learn some things we shouldn’t do to help our children become more creative.

“Creative Play begins with inspiration and culminates in the sharing of an original artifact made by the child using whatever tools and materials are available. In this process, kids open up their minds to what’s possible, take chances, solve problems, collaborate and become better creative thinkers and doers. These are the critical ‘21st century skills’ the whole world is talking about.”

For more information visit: imagination.is/Imagination Foundation/The Power of Creative Play