Unstructured Play

Children stacking blocks
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Unstructured play is a category of play (as opposed to a type of play) where children engage in open-ended play that has no specific learning objective. Unlike structured play, unstructured play is not instructor-led (meaning there is no leadership or direction given by a parent, teacher, older sibling, or any other adult), and it does not have a particular strategy behind it. (Unstructured play is often informally referred to as simply "letting kids by kids" or "just play.")

Child-Led Play

Instead, the play and activities are child-led, often leading to play that is creative and improvised. Unstructured play doesn't necessarily mean a child plays alone--play partners in the form of peers, siblings, and even parents can definitely take part in unstructured play with a preschooler. The difference is the ultimate intent. For example:

  • Building a free-form city with blocks is unstructured play. Following directions to put together a Lego kit is structured play.
  • Singing silly songs out loud is unstructured play. Singing silly songs out loud about the days of the week is structured play.

In both cases, neither one is more important than the other, but both are necessary and both fulfill basic needs in early childhood development.

The Importance of Unstructured Play

Unstructured play is important for a child because it gives them a sense of freedom and control, and allows them to learn about themselves, what they like and don't like, and even make mistakes without feeling any pressure or failure.

In fact, unstructured play is such a necessary part of childhood, it is recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education that preschoolers engage in some form or forms of unstructured play for at least an hour a day (up to several hours a day).

Getting the Most Out of Unstructured Play

To help children get the most out of unstructured playtime, be sure to have plenty of materials on hand—age-appropriate toys, a big enough space, and plenty of time.

You can also use nontraditional items to encourage a preschooler to engage in unstructured play:

  • hula hoops (most preschoolers aren't physically able to hula hoop properly, but they certainly can have fun with a hula hoop!)
  • juggling scarves (same as above. They probably won't use the scarves as intended, but a little one will come up with plenty of creative uses.)
  • cardboard boxes
  • paper towel rolls
  • sidewalk chalk
  • blocks
  • a bucket of water and a sponge
  • sticks and rocks
  • buttons (be wary of choking hazards

Leave these and other items just like them out for your child and you will be amazed at the creativity that your little one engages in.

It is important to note that unstructured play isn't the same as unsupervised play. Preschoolers should always be under the direct supervision of a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult.

For more on unstructured and structured play, check out Physical Activity and Fitness for Preschoolers.

Also Known As: Self play, just play, free play

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