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?

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