The True Value of Unstructured Play and Why It’s Critically Important for Kids Today

Jun 2, 2022 | Education, Parenting

Author: Laura McVey

What did you do when you were finally old enough to venture outside without a parent carrying you, holding your hand, or even being present while you played? Do you remember the exhilaration of being free to play and explore the world around you on your terms and the excitement that came from making new discoveries both big and small with friends in your neighborhood? There was nothing quite like that burgeoning independence you achieved when you left the structure of daily life behind.

That’s what unstructured play is all about. It’s the physical activity and free play that takes place in a stress-free state of interest and joy alone, or with friends, without predetermined rules or guidelines directed by adults or older peers, and according to American Psychological Association, doesn’t generally have a defined purpose or outcome. Kids make up their own rules and figure things out with each other through cooperation, sharing, reciprocity, empathy, and communication.

Playing in puddles, investigating insects in the backyard, riding bikes on trails through the woods, “creating miniature cities in the garden, being a fireman one minute and Tarzan the next, quickly followed by a superhero – these are the kinds of things that make up real play,” according to Dr. S. D. Sampson.

If you were born before the 90s, before social media and cell phones became mainstays in our lives, you may have been told to go outside to play, whether you wanted to or not, then come home when the streetlights turned on for dinner. We weren’t allowed to say no. In fact, we didn’t even want to because there likely wasn’t anything to do inside other than watch television, play video games (without the internet to play with others) or do chores. So, the obvious choice was to go outside and find something fun to do, maybe even ask a friend in the neighborhood to play with you.

Missing Out on Life Shaping Opportunities

Unfortunately, in today’s technology-driven world, many kids don’t have the same drive, will or encouragement to explore these life shaping opportunities that their parents did. Oftentimes, they’re simply too addicted to their devices, the internet, and social media to truly explore their real-world surroundings. Regardless of the reason, this lack of physical interaction and exploration comes at a price.

Why is Unstructured Play Important for Children?

Unstructured play is essential to maintaining healthy weight and supporting cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, according to researchers at MIT. Together these areas of growth build lifelong skills and benefits that foster positive behavior, healthy choices, and mental and social wellbeing. Without them, Children are more likely to have poor physical and mental health, physical and mental, and detrimental social outcomes later in life.

Determining and Achieving Their Own Goals

No one is born with these traits. Instead, we develop and build on them as we grow and have new experiences, specifically during childhood play. When children participate in unstructured play, they determine their own set of goals and how to carry out actions to achieve these goals. The bottom line is that the more time kids spend in less structured activities, the better they become at their self-directed abilities later in life.

So instead of letting technology become the dominating influence in their lives, encourage your child to go outside, play with friends or use their own imagination to explore nature and unleash their creativity! It’s not only fun for them, but the benefits will last a lifetime!


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