The Importance of Unstructured Playtime for Children's Development

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

Pre school? Check. Soccer practice? Check. Piano lessons? Check. Ample amounts of unstructured play time? Ummm…

Modern parenting is tricky – between academics, activities, apps, we have so many resources to entertain and teach our kids. So many that we sometimes miss out on one of the best teaching tools of childhood: unstructured play. Here’s what it is, why your kids need it, and how you can make it a regular part of your child’s life!

Benefits of unstructured playtime

So, exactly what is unstructured play, and why is it so important? Quite simply, unstructured play is child-led play time that’s not directed by an adult and doesn't involve screens – and it has some pretty huge benefits for kids’ development!

Develops creativity and imagination

A bored child is just a few minutes away from becoming a creative child! When kids are given the time and space to entertain themselves, their imagination kicks into gear. From dramatic play to building and crafting to inventing their own games, unstructured play is the secret sauce to unlocking your kiddo’s creativity.

Enhances problem-solving and decision-making skills

Want to help your child develop problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making? Give them time for free play! Seriously. When they encounter a problem, they rise to the occasion, getting creative with what they find or making something new. All the while, they're learning without even realizing it!

Improves social and emotional development

When kids get a chance to play together without any adult interference, they figure out how to communicate their ideas, take turns, share, and get along. It’s fine to help young toddlers learn how to introduce themselves or to help diffuse major squabbles, but in general, resist the temptation to hover over every interaction at the playground.

Enhances physical development and motor skills

Give a kid freedom to play how they want, and what will they do? MOVE. When given the opportunity and the environment, kids run, climb, explore, dig, move heavy objects, etc – no gym coach required. All of that movement helps support them in getting the exercise they need and developing strength and gross motor skills.

Reduces stress and anxiety

We know – the idea that our pampered little loves are stressed can seem laughable. But the fact is, when kids are overscheduled, over-screened, and don’t get the movement and play time they need, their mental health can suffer as a result. Free play activities help release pent-up emotions, boost mood, and increase self-esteem – especially when those activities involve lots of movement and outdoor time. Kids get a chance to have some control over their day, to shake expectations of doing things “right,” and to revel in the joy of just playing.

Obstacles to Unstructured Playtime

Implementing more unstructured playtime sounds super easy on paper – as in “Hey, go play and have fun!!” But in reality, modern obstacles can make it pretty difficult to achieve.

Screens & Tech

Today’s kids are growing up in a world where screens are everywhere, and if we’re not careful, those screens can rob them of play. These devices can be addictive in nature and make it hard for kids to engage in other types of play.

Pressure to “Get Ahead”

Sometimes, parents are made to feel like the only goal of the preschool years is to learn letters and numbers… or to train up the next big soccer star. Let’s be clear – there’s nothing wrong with encouraging kids in academics and extracurriculars, but a heavy focus on them can leave little time for unstructured play, which may not seem as "productive" or "useful.” If you’re feeling that pressure, just remember that the “soft skills” of childhood – ie. problem solving, emotional regulation, social skills, creativity, etc. – are going to be just as, if not more important to their success as students and adults.

Safety Concerns

Does unstructured play feel like a recipe for disaster? Remember that unstructured doesn’t necessarily mean unsupervised. You can and should still keep a watchful eye in public settings while letting kids take age-appropriate risks. Plus, a kid-friendly backyard and a child-proofed home go a long way to giving kids the freedom to explore without compromising safety.

Packed Schedules

Finally, there's the issue of time. Between work, household chores, and other responsibilities, it can feel like screens or scheduled activities are the only way to make it all happen. But unstructured playtime can be our best friend here! It’s a developmentally-friendly way for kids to spend their time while giving us a minute to load the dishwasher or pay the bills. Normalizing unstructured play in your home may take some time at first, but we promise, in the long run, it’s worth it for both you and your kids!

How to Encourage Unstructured Playtime

​​Fostering unstructured play is all about creating time and spaces that encourage creativity, exploration, and imagination. Here are some practical tips for making that happen:

Craft a safe and stimulating environment:

First off, let’s all take a breath and remember it’s okay to let kids be messy, loud, and a little bit wild sometimes. Outdoor time is perfect for this! Indoors, we can also provide them with open-ended toys like play kitchens, dollhouses, and other pretend play props – but remember, it's up to them to decide how to use them.

Allow free time

Sounds simple, but we know how easy it is to fall into all the sports, camps, and lessons. Guard against the pressure to fill every moment of their day with structured activities. Unstructured time is just as valuable! For some kids, it may be helpful to create a daily rhythm so they know when to expect free play time each day.

Limit screen time

If screens are your child’s go-to fix for boredom, adjusting to free play can be tough at first, but stick with it! If you feel like you need some help reducing screen time, we recommend checking out the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan Tool. It walks you through the process of identifying your goals and creating a media plan that works for your family!

Encourage outdoor play

Outdoor play is critical for kids’ physical and emotional wellbeing, and it provides endless opportunities for unstructured play. Whether it's on your backyard playset, at a local park, or on a nature walk, try to make time for it every day.

Be patient and allow for boredom

Unstructured play doesn’t always come easily. You can still count on hearing “I’m bored!” every now and then, especially from kids who are just getting used to independent free play. Encourage your child to persevere through boredom and frustration, modeling ideas for activities and, above all, keeping a positive attitude. Remember, this time is meant to be fun – harsh reprimands will only work against you in the end.

Model unstructured play

And lastly, let's not forget to have fun ourselves! Get down on the floor and build a fort. Run around the backyard. Make a mess in the mud kitchen. Even with play, kids learn by example. It may sound counterintuitive, but playing with your child will make it easier for them to engage in those activities without your help later. Plus, kids need a balance of independent play and warm interaction with adult caregivers. When you fill up their love-and-attention tanks by spending time together, they feel more emotionally secure and able to spend time on their own.

So, there you have it – the challenges and joys of unstructured playtime. Let's embrace the chaos and creativity and let the kids be kids! Who knows what kind of magic they'll create when they're left to their own devices?