Sunday, January 26, 2020

Unstructured Play is Important

Guest Post by: Andy Earle

If you’re not already familiar with the concept of unstructured play, this article may prove a valuable resource in increasing your child’s cognitive and physical capabilities. First of all, unstructured play is essentially just playing without strict rules and guidelines. The point of unstructured play, or free play, is for your child to have fun by creating their own goals and reveling in the act itself rather than be focused on completing one particular task. Here is a further look at unstructured play, along with some of its potential benefits.

Structured vs. Unstructured Play

Most games and activities we typically think of fall into the category of structured play. Board games, organized sports, and games like hide-and-seek, tag, and Simon says all follow specific rules and aim for one goal that allows a person to win. In unstructured play, there is no single goal or rules to guide what is and isn’t allowed. Playing make believe, climbing trees, and running around outside are all examples of unstructured play.

If you’re having trouble distinguishing the two, think of your child using a model airplane kit. If they follow each direction step-by-step, they are engaging in structured play. They are moving towards a specific goal by following instructions. However, if they ignore the rules and use the pieces to create something different, they are engaging in unstructured play. Unstructured play, as shown in this example, involves more creative and problem solving skills than regular, rule-based play.

Unstructured Play: The Positives

Here is a more in-depth look at the benefits of unstructured play. Unstructured play often takes place outside, giving your child the chance to interact with nature and the outside world in new and beneficial ways. Activities like running around, climbing, and doing various exercises like cartwheels and somersaults builds strength in your child’s muscles and can even expend energy more efficiently than some organized sports, like baseball and softball. Apart from developing their muscles and physical coordination, engaging in unstructured play outside will encourage curiosity within your child. They will begin to look at the world around them in new and dynamic ways, and force themselves to find new ways to answer questions and overcome obstacles they create. Without rules, they will be more intrinsically motivated in their play, and take absorb the lessons they learn more readily.

Mental Development

If your child is engaging in free play frequently then they are likely developing seriously important cognitive skills. Without rules telling them how to think and what to do, your child will be forced to look at problems from new perspectives. They will also have opportunities to be more creative in how they approach challenges, learning to think outside the box and take risks.

Your child will also learn to be more flexible in their thinking. Learning only to rely on rules and expectations can leave your child unprepared for life’s more unexpected moments. Unstructured play encourages improvisational thinking and the ability to adjust to new circumstances, which are both crucial things for your child to learn early on as they can impact teenage development.


The ultimate benefit of unstructured play is the sense of freedom it develops in your child. Continuously following rules, orders, and restrictions is not a good way for your child to develop a personality that they value and take pride in. In fact, this constant control can even lead to serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety if not addressed. The freedom to create that comes with free play will help your child discover their passions and strengths, as well as give them an outlet for showcasing them.

In conclusion, unstructured play is an invaluable resource for your child to explore and develop their full range of skills, passions, and strengths. Not only does it provide a constructive outlet for your child’s energy, but it actively develops vital characteristics of a healthy child—both physically and mentally. 

I strongly encourage you to let your child engage in unstructured play as often as possible in order to raise a child filled with creativity, leadership, and curiosity.

Author Bio: Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of, ghostwriter at, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.

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