How Unstructured Play or “Free Play” Can Help Kids Develop Better

We often hear old people say “let them play” or “it’s better for them to play”, but what kind of play is good for kids? Should we just let them play alone? Outside? Indoor? How are they learning this way? Most importantly, why is play critical for a child’s development?

Photo by Gabriel Baranski on Unsplash

There are categories of play in which kids learn. Structured play and unstructured play.

UNSTRUCTURED PLAY

Unstructured play is “free play” – a child plays the way he wants.

  • The child leads his own playtime.
  • He does what interests him.
  • It is open-ended which mean there is no objective set by parents or instructors.
  • Not instructor-led but child-led play.
  • Letting kids be kids.
  • It is creative and improvised. It even progresses as the child discovers ways on how to make it better.
  • Not necessarily played alone. It can be with friends
  • It can be done inside our outside the house or center.
Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

STRUCTURED PLAY

Structured play on the other hand is “play with a purpose.” It is often coached or facilitated in order to set rules to follow so that objectives and goals for the play can be met.

  • Instructor or parent-led.
  • Often used when you want to introduce new concepts or lessons.
  • The adult has an objective of what the child has to learn at the end of the play.
  • Doesn’t have to be formal or organized. It can be as simple as instructing a child to touch all the color red, or making him put all the blue balls in a basket.
  • Everyday household tasks can be a form of structured play when done in a fun way.

Both unstructured and structured are important in a child’s development. Giving a child all structured play can lessen his creativity while all unstructured play when not handled properly can result to wild games that are difficult to control. A balance between the two is what we need.

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In this post, the play I am referring to is the unstructured one. The child-led play.


BENEFITS OF UNSTRUCTURED PLAY

When playing, kids turn objects into something else.


A luggage can turn into a boat, a spaceship, a car, a bed,etc.

A blanket turns into a cave, a fortress, a tent, a sea, a roof, and more.

Kids are full of imagination at this age. Don’t let it go to waste and not develop by letting them face the TV screen/gadgets all the time.

FINE MOTOR SKILLS

When they are on screen, the body, the hands especially don’t develop much. When kids use their hands, the hand muscles and fine motor skills are being exercised and prepared for:

  • gripping a pencil
  • holding a spoon
  • moving a crayon
  • grabbing bigger, heavier objects
  • turning things on and off
  • holding a vacuum cleaner (to clean the house later on😂)

SPEAKING SKILLS

Conversation happens when kids move/play.

  • The vocabulary increases as they learn new words.
  • The tongue practices how to pronounce words.
  • Kids think on how they will respond to other kids.
  • They learn how to control their emotions and think of others as well.

 

  • There’s an affirmation that happens. In screen (if they are watching alone), even if they say the wrong word, nobody tells them if it’s correct. The computer cannot tell them if there’s something else to improve. When there’s an actual interaction from parents and other kids, they will hear “this is the right way to do it” then they will know the correct way to do it or “wow, that’s good!” And this boosts their self-esteem and they will want to try another one.

GROSS MOTOR SKILLS/ HAND AND EYE COORDINATION

When the whole body moves. It develops the Gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are larger movements your baby/child makes with his arms, legs, feet, or his entire body. It  includes physical skills plus the EYE AND HAND COORDINATION which will eventually prepare kids to perform actions like:

  • eating
  • standing
  • jumping
  • walking
  • putting clothes on
  • running
  • cleaning
  • Also sports and games

When kids don’t develop this area, they will less likely have interest in outdoor activities and trying out difficult tasks.

Letting kids play outside is a challenge for us who are living here in Saudi Arabia. We cannot go out in the streets with our kids to play like in other countries. It is either too hot, or there are no places outside the house to play in. Unless you are living in compounds where it is free to go out and walk without abayas.

These simple developments can be missed out when kids spend more time on screen than actually moving around. 🙂

WHY DO PARENTS AVOID UNSTRUCTURED PLAY?

The mess. That’s the main concern of most parents. We don’t want the house to get messy. What you can do is assign a place or a room where kids can play. Also remind them to clean up after. You can read this recent post about Turning Mess into Moments .

They’re not doing anything. That’s what we thought. We focus on the results, but it is actually the process and what’s happening inside their bodies that matters.

They’ll just fight with each other. That’s how they will develop emotionally. After the fight, we can then talk to them what to do next time it happens. Let’s face it. They will be facing worse attitudes of people in their lives in the future. We can’t isolate them from those things, but we can prepare and educate them based on how they react during these unstructured plays.

They might get bored. Don’t be afraid of kids getting bored. They won’t. They are too adventurous to get bored. 😃 Don’t give in to the temptation of immediately giving them gadgets once they start “feeling” bored. Try to show them other stuff they can play with then distance yourself little by little once they start playing or act as if you are doing something. Just observe how they play or what they like playing with. You can use those items next time for structured play when you want to teach them some important things. =)


How does unstructured play help your kids? Maybe you have strategies we can learn from. Feel free to share them in the comments below for other parents to read. =)


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Resources:

https://www.verywellfamily.com/unstructured-play-2764971

https://www.verywellfamily.com/structured-play-2764980

Teacher training courses online at Udemy:

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5 thoughts on “How Unstructured Play or “Free Play” Can Help Kids Develop Better

  1. Unstructured play develops a child’s imagination and its trully limitless. My child often surprises me with stuffs he has made on his own. He ones made a house out of discarded ref packaging complete witn bath tub and an aircon.

  2. I think the free play and structured play are both important to our child. During the free play the kids will learn through their own discovery and curiosity and help them to do the task independently and the structured play they will learn to obey the rules and know their limitations. This post is very helpful.

  3. my kids have unstructured play from Mondays to Fridays. They have gadgets days on weekends. We’ve come up with this because we believe that children’s creativity are enhanced when we don’t hover over them all the time and let them explore, discover, create and enjoy all on their own. Sometimes, we do play board games with them. But lots of free play and free reading is mostly how they spend their days.

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