The Scientific Benefits of Unstructured Play


Raising kids is a tough balancing act. Every day parents are bombarded with radically different instructions, research, must-do’s and horror stories. Parents–understandably–want to do what is best for their children. They want to assure that their kids will be strong, smart, healthy, happy and successful.


Unfortunately, fear and peer pressure often makes it difficult for parents to keep their kids’ lives balanced. Pressure to sign up for the latest class, attend the best camp, or invest in the right media means that parents forget about one of the best habits for development: unstructured play.


Schedules and Stress

It used to be that parents began to worry about their child’s college and career prospects at the start of high school. Then those worries shifted to the start of middle school. Now many parents are encouraged to worry from preschool (or infancy) about their child’s long-term college or career prospects.


In this competitive age, is it any wonder that parents fear that their children won’t be smart enough, multi-talented enough or qualified enough for college admissions or the job market? Is it any wonder that they fill every minute of their child’s day with extra tutoring, music lessons, sports programs, and countless other extracurriculars?


However, all work and no play makes Jack a very stressed out child. Scheduled activities aren’t evil in and of themselves. A measure of scheduled activities is just as important as unstructured play. Both are healthy alternatives to a life filled solely with passive, sedentary entertainment. But over-scheduling your child can bring with it a high amount of stress. With no time to relax and no opportunity for unstructured play, kids have no opportunity to refresh and recharge.


Stress in kids, just like in adults, can negatively impact everything from mood to physical health. Every child’s stress tolerance is different, so it’s important to keep the warning signs in mind.


Developmental Benefits

Over-scheduled kids aren’t just experiencing the negative results of stress, they’re also missing out on the many positive, developmental benefits of unstructured play.


The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a 2007 study highlighting the many benefits of unscheduled, child-led play. “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development” (AAP report).


Unstructured play allows children the freedom to learn and interact with the world at their own pace. Free to explore on their own, they can learn about risk taking, overcoming fears, and cause and effect. Free-play with peers gives children the opportunity to invent their own games (and rules of conduct), teaching them how to cooperate with others, compromise, address disagreements, and speak up for themselves. Free to explore their limits and strengths, kids can discover their passions for themselves. Structured activities can then be chosen based on kids’ unique personalities and interests.


Unstructured play can happen anywhere: inside, outside, in an open field or a small driveway. It can also happen on fun, simple, safe structures designed to get kids moving and capture their imaginations. However, studies show that 59% of parents reported having no outdoor play space within walking distance of their home. Additionally, there’s a drastic drop in outdoor play–down 50% since the 1970’s.


Room for Parents

Scheduled activities and helicopter parents can impede a child’s confidence and independence, but that doesn’t mean parents are banned from free play.


“When parents observe their children in play or join with them in child-driven play, they are given a unique opportunity to see the world from their child’s vantage point as the child navigates a world perfectly created just to fit his or her needs” (AAP report). So much of a child’s communication is nonverbal. By participating in playtime–and letting their child lead–parents are able to gain insight into their child’s personality that may never have come out during direct conversation.


It’s important to remember that parents participating in play is different than adult led activities. Child centered play allows the kids to maintain the autonomy needed to grow and develop, while parental participation strengthens and reinforces the love, support and security of a healthy parent-child bond. Parents can still step in when necessary for safety reasons, but are otherwise free to have fun and follow their child’s lead.


It’s easy to get caught up in comparative parenting. While all children need a measure of unstructured and a measure of structured play, only you will know where that perfect balance is for your child. Focus on enjoying and encouraging the merits of both types of play and free yourself–and your child–from the stress of keeping up with the Joneses (offspring).