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How to use unstructured play to aid development

Unstructured play at the beach

What is unstructured play?

Unstructured play is often also referred to as “letting kids be kids”. At times, you may also hear it called “free play” or self-play.”

Unstructured play and activities are led by your child. The key difference is the ‘intent’ of the play. With unstructured play, the intent is undefined.

This type of play allows children to create their own rules and establish their own limits.

For example:

  • When playing with blocks: Building a free-form city is unstructured play. Following directions of a Lego kit is structured play.
  • When singing: Singing songs to your hearts desire in the moment is unstructured play. Singing songs out loud about the days of the week is structured play.

Unstructured play doesn’t necessarily mean a child plays alone. Unstructured play can be with peers, siblings, and even parents.

What are the benefits of unstructured play?

There are several benefits of unstructured play. 5 of the most important are:

  1. Encourages children to be independent and master elements of the world on their own terms.
  2. Develops self-determination, self-esteem, and the ability to self-regulate, which are vital elements of emotional development.
  3. Cultivates creativity and imagination in your child.
  4. When carried out in the form of physical movement, it builds strength, coordination and cardiovascular fitness.
  5. It uses boredom as a vehicle for children to create their own happiness and develops self-reliance.

Actionable ways to implement unstructured play

Whilst unstructured play is by definition non-curated, here are some things you can do to promote unstructured play with your child:

  • Limit your child’s screen time. Screens distract kids from playing in the real world, inhibiting their ability to engage in unstructured play.
  • Don’t step in too quickly to solve problems. Instead, wait a minute to see if they can figure things out on their own before you intervene. Disagreements are inevitable when kids play together. Letting them resolve conflicts is a big part of their development and helps develop skills for later life.
  • Unstructured play requires unstructured time. Leave unscheduled blocks of time where kids don’t have any planned activities.
  • Adjust expectations. Your child will not be able to spend hours playing on their own if they haven’t done this before. Most of us, kids and adults alike, don’t have much practice entertaining ourselves. As your child gets more used to unstructured play, they will play independently for longer.
  • Get outside. Play in the backyard with your child, or take your child to the park or the beach.
  • Let them get messy. Encourage it even. Kids will have an easier time immersing themselves in play if they know they aren’t going to get in trouble for getting dirty knees or paint on their hands.
  • Let them be bored. If kids aren’t provided with an activity, they have to use their own creativity which tends to more engrossed play.

How Grow With Me encourages unstructured play

We, at Grow With Me, are big believers in the benefits of unstructured play.

We purposefully include toys and products in our boxes that encourage unstructured play. Here are 3 examples:

  • Hand and foot marks – gives your child the space to think about different activities and movements they can do with these marks
  • Vegetable crate set – encourages creativity and imagination in a child, for example encouraging them to think what dishes they could make with the vegetables
  • Woodland animals – with no pre-conceived purpose, your child may choose to make the animals hop from one place to the next or mimic sounds the animals make

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Dr. Neha Thakerar