The Importance of Unstructured Play
Unstructured play is the heart of how children learn and an essential part of every child’s healthy growth and development. As families are currently spending more time at home, it is important to step back, relax, and recognize the value in what children are already doing – playing!
Unstructured play refers to play that is open-ended, child-led, and not directed by adults. It can include imaginative play, dramatic play, constructive play, or creative play. It may involve loose parts, physical activity, arts and crafts, music, science, and just about anything else a child can imagine. Whatever it entails, it is always intrinsically motivated, actively engaging, and results in joyful discovery (Yogman 2018). It is spontaneous, voluntary, and most importantly, it’s is fun!
Play begins at birth. Infants engage in play through social smiling, babbling, peek-a-boo games, stories, and songs. Play is what helps them transition from total dependence to gaining agency over their daily activities.
As an infant grows into a toddler, they can engage in more complex forms of play, such as rough-and-tumble play and pretend play. They interact with materials in a deeper way and for longer periods of time. As toddlers play, they continue to build essential life skills, like self-regulation and problem-solving.
As children grow, they gain more and more independence through play. Unstructured play allows them to explore their world and learn about how it works. Through play, they exercise the freedom of choice, building confidence and making decisions in a pressure-free environment. During play, children often act out scenarios they see in real life, experimenting and discovering in a safe way. It helps them experience consequences, cause and effect, and develop critical thinking skills.
Unstructured play improves physical literacy by building gross and fine motor skills. It improves children’s social and emotional wellbeing, growing their emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication skills. It encourages cognitive development and improves their executive functions.
Play reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and contributes to better overall health. When children experience uncertainty during play, they develop skills to better cope with adversity. Through play, they build relationships, develop coping mechanisms, and practice resiliency.
Unstructured play helps children build skills that will serve them throughout their lives. During this time at home with your loved ones, spend some time engaging in unstructured, child-led play. It will be a time together you’ll always remember.