Aug 20, 2010 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Unstructured Play

As educators, we carefully design connections between what we teach and our students' future success. Practically every aspect of our young people's school day is designed with a specific learning purpose in mind. Along with helping them learn foundational, essential content, we also employ classroom experiences to help students learn to apply knowledge to creative solutions, analyze situations to make smart decisions, and learn to collaborate with others.

Now, stop for a moment and think about the skills I just listed: analyzing challenges; making decisions; creating; collaborating. As it turns out, these are all benefits that young brains get out of the simple experience of good old-fashioned unstructured play.

Today, 21st century society has evolved into one where our children's time is over-scheduled and over-structured. A recent poll of 2,000 parents in the UKindicated that, after figuring in school, homework, extra lessons, after-school activities and television and computer screen time, the average child gets a seriously inadequate 69.77 minutes a day for unstructured play.

Why is unstructured playtime so essential? In the 2007 clinical report, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, published by The American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg outlines the key benefits of play, which include:

  • The development of creativity, imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength
  • The ability to engage, interact with and manipulate the surrounding world
  • The opportunity to conquer fears and practice adult roles
  • The ability to develop self-confidence and resiliency
  • The chance to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and learn self-advocacy
  • The opportunity to build healthy, active, coordinated bodies

The list goes on and on and on. And yet, even with that understanding of the importance of such play for healthy development, we find it challenging--both as parents and educators--to make that time. But we can and we must, so let us assume that you can successfully "unplan" some time each week. Once we flip the switch to the "off" position, then what? Here are a few ideas just to get you started:

  • Spend a day in the park. But for goodness sake, don't plan anything! Just bring a picnic and let the rest happen. (It will, you'll see.)
  • Pay a regular visit to the library and let those budding brains explore.
  • Revisit your back yard. Remember that place? You will be amazed and what a few youngsters will devise with just some sticks, a garden hose and some nice, yummy mud. (Notice: Getting dirty is part of the fun and the learning. It'll be even more fun if you get into it with them.)
  • Plan more play dates. Not only will friendships become more and more solid, but the negotiation and collaboration skills learned will be invaluable.
  • Keep those art supplies stocked. Get a simple plastic cabinet, box or trunk that you can keep stashed in a closet, and FILL IT with art supplies. Then, maybe when it is least expected, open that treasure chest and let the magic happen.

As the grownups and educators, we want to plan with purpose. In the case of play, we need to relax and take it easy. If we can simply present some options, children and play will find their way.

Now, what about teens, who are by nature struggling to find their way? In general, teens' time is much more structured than that of younger children, considering that they are juggling school, homework, sports, music lessons, clubs, etc. While the general opinion is that teens have a greater propensity for getting into trouble when they have too much unstructured time, we must not forget that there are still benefits to unstructured time. Given reasonable boundaries, teens will continue to reap the benefits of unstructured time by stretching and exercising their mental wings. Think about all the great things that teens are doing through YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and similar organizations that give them the time and space to just be themselves in a safe, stimulating environment. Home can and should be just as safe, positive and creative.

While the research available is extensive, here are a couple of articles just to get you started: