What if I told you that your child could engage in activities that help them develop their physical and cognitive abilities, progress in their own sense of self-confidence, and have fun all at the same time? This is exactly what unstructured play offers. The brain works harder and develops more during unstructured play than traditional, rule-based activities. It also takes less time to prepare, and is an excellent way for your child to express themself while having fun! In this article I hope to share with you some of the benefits of unstructured play.
First, what is unstructured play?
When you think of your child “playing,” you may think of a game of pickup basketball with their friends, a game of tag with their classmates, or even a board game with you. All of these are examples of structured play. Structured play employs rules and guidelines that are oriented towards completing a task. On the other hand, unstructured play involves no rules and no pre-set goals or tasks to complete. Examples of unstructured play include playing make believe, running around outside, and climbing trees.
It’s easy for things that start out as structured play to turn into unstructured play. For example, imagine your child is playing with a block set that came with an instruction booklet. If they decide to follow the instructions step by step to produce the final product, this would be structured play. However, if they choose to ignore the instructions and create something totally new, that is an example of unstructured play. This latter example involves improvisational skills, problem-solving skills, and creativity on the part of your child. These are typical benefits of unstructured play, among many others.
Benefits of free play
There really are numerous ways for unstructured play to benefit your child, but these are some of the most crucial.
While there are certainly structured play activities (such as sports) that allow children to go outside and exercise, unstructured play gives opportunities for children to engage with the outside world in a different way. Running around freely with few rules allows them to discover their own reasons for playing, which will make them more intrinsically motivated and excited about what they’re doing. This may result in them expending more energy than they would while playing organized sports, as well as allow them to develop muscle memory and build their stamina in ways structured play may not allow. Allowing them to engage in free play outside will also increase their curiosity of the world around them. They may begin asking questions they’ve never asked before, and find new interests and passions they didn’t know they had.
Strengthening your child’s neurological connections is a vital part of developing a strong and flexible brain capable of handling real life situations. Free play works the brain like a muscle, making it grow stronger and more accustomed to improvising, looking for creative solutions, and approaching problems from different perspectives. During unstructured play, there are no rules to guide your child. This means they have to do all the work themself, all the way from start to finish. It’s a full-brain workout, in a way. It works their decision making skills, their problem solving skills, their ability to think on the spot, and their general creative process. These are traits that are incredibly important to develop early on, and that benefit much more from unstructured play than rule-based games and activities.Plus they can have an effect on further development in the teenage years.
Sense of freedom
Restricting your child with rules and guidelines in their “free” time does nothing to develop their sense of freedom and selfhood. While following instructions is an important part of life, it’s just as important for your child to value their unique perspectives, passions, and strengths. If these things are repressed, there is even a chance that your child may develop mental illnesses like anxiety and depression later in life.
To avoid this, and help your child develop a strong and proud sense of self, encourage free play. It will introduce them to new interests and prepare them for situations where there is no clear path, which is an incredibly important leadership quality.
I hope that I’ve succeeded in explaining why unstructured play is beneficial to your child. Not only does it build their physical strength in a way comparable to rule-based sports and games, but it allows them to use their mind in ways that structured play doesn’t have room for. While a child might be penalized for “breaking the rules” in structured play, their creativity is celebrated in free play. All in all, I hope that you recognize the value of unstructured play in developing your child’s cognitive, physical, and leadership capabilities.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.