Let Them Play – The Importance of Unstructured Play!

unstructured play

Let Them Play – The Importance of Unstructured Play!

Let’s bring back playtime!

The weather is warming (I believe in you, Chicago!), the flowers are in bloom, and the first day of summer is fast approaching. While children are excited for the last day of school and look forward to the bliss that is summer, many parents experience a rising level of stress thinking about how to occupy those long summer days with everyone home from school.  This year, the stress came early as families are coping with unexpected school closures. Sports camp, computer coding classes, theater productions are undeniable experiences that are enriching, joyful and, at times, necessary for parents’ schedules. These are just some of the ways for children to spend their time. In this post, however, I want to talk about the benefits that are achieved by allowing children the opportunity for unstructured play.

What is unstructured play?

Unstructured play is child-led activities without a strategy, goal, or learning objective in mind. These types of activities are open-ended and allow for a child to be creative and improvise.  Unstructured play activities don’t have to be done alone and can include other children, siblings, and parents.  In school, often, unstructured playtime is accomplished through “free time” throughout the day.

Why is unstructured play important?

  1. Children have the opportunity to be creative and utilize their imaginations.
  2. When playing with siblings and/or friends, children learn to navigate conflict independently and develop social skills like listening, taking turns, being a leader, and compromise.
  3. Children can implement problem-solving skills. Trying to build a block tower but it keeps falling? The child has an opportunity to tackle and work this problem until she is successful.
  4. While overcoming hurdles, (like how to build the tallest block tower) a child is given the opportunity to feel smart, capable, and accomplished. This can provide a strong foundation for building self-esteem and confidence.
  5. It provides children the opportunity to learn independence as they take the lead in playtime.
  6. Children can be responsible for their own entertainment and it reduces the dreaded “I’m bored” echoes throughout the house.
  7. Screen time will be reduced.


Examples of unstructured play activities:

  • Riding a bike
  • Playing dress-up
  • Creating a story with favorite dolls/toys
  • Singing silly songs and/or making-up own songs
  • Using Legos to build a free-form structure
  • Playdoh or air-dry clay (no mess!)
  • Sidewalk chalk art
  • Visit a playground or park
  • Play pretend (teacher/classroom, kitchen, office)
  • Arts & Crafts time with no project in mind

Warming weather is a magical time in our wonderful city but no one can argue with the pressure parents feel to keep their kids entertained and busy for the long months (and now weeks!) that school is out. Structured activities are important and provide learning opportunities that catapult children down the path of success, but unstructured playtime also deserves a proper time in the spotlight. And parents, give yourself a break, it’s time to let the kids take charge of playtime.

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