5 Ways to Encourage Unstructured Play in Kids

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Unstructured Play

Play is SO important. We often appreciate how much enjoyment kids receive from playing with their peers or their favorite toy, however, we often overlook the power of play. While kids are playing, there is so much social, emotional and mental growth occurring. Through play, your kids are learning teamwork, how to share and conflict resolution skills all while employing their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Imagine all of that taking place while your child is having fun! I am a major proponent of play-based learning and believe that it is the best way for typically-developing, young children to learn. While play of all types is wonderful, time for unstructured play (play without adult guidance) is necessary. It seems that overall there is an increase in structured activities and electronic entertainment and a decrease in the amount of time our kids engage in unstructured play. It is often through unstructured play that imagination and creativity can really take center stage. Like everything in life, balance is key. In a technological world, it is important that children understand and know how to use electronics, likewise with increasing educational pressure, structured activities and school-readiness are equally as important. However, we can’t deny the benefits of down time and unstructured play for kids.


Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

                           -Fred Rogers

This is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, quotes of all time. For example, when a child plays house and mimics their reality at home, they are learning how to express their thoughts and feelings and can work through issues or reinforce rules. Make-believe play is essential for kids to develop a sense of curiosity and learn how to respond to a variety of different situations. It is this type of unstructured play that is so valuable to the social and emotional well-being of a child. I will briefly discuss 5 simple ways your can encourage unstructured play at home.

1.Set up an invitation to play/explore.  An invitation to play doesn’t require a lot of setup or extravagant materials, it is simply the process of offering resources for the child to explore. I like to use a plastic chip and dip containter from the dollar store for our invitations. I scour the house for little items to place in the tray that I think go together, or that seem to have some sort of theme, and then simply invite my children to play with the objects, creating or playing with them as they see fit. You would be amazed at the creativity you will see unfolding in front of you. This can be as simple as setting some blocks on a blanket or a tea set on the patio, or more involved like putting out play dough, tools, cupcake liners, candles etc. You can try race cars next to a bin of soapy water with a towel, some chalk and construction paper, toothpicks and marshmallows, toilet paper tubes and a variety of types of tape…the list goes on. It is really all about the presentation and the ability for the child to guide their own play. While we may think that these play prompts seem structured because of the materials provided, by giving kids free reign and zero instruction, they just might surprise you with how they choose to play!

2. Provide access to wooden toys. By adding some wooden toys to your collection, your child is forced to engage and interact with these much differently that push-button type toys. There are a number of ‘learning’ toys out there that sing the ABCs or count along with the child, however, they do not encourage a lot of child led play and interaction. When playing with wooden toys, the child must manually pull, push, or manipulate the object, leading to creative play and an active mind. Wooden fruit, building blocks, wooden animals, are all great examples of these types of toys. Children as young as 3 learn to understand the real world through realistic play. These toys also encourage social interaction. Children will want to imagine and create alongside other kids with the toys as props, whereas, when playing with a toy that talks back, social interaction with peers is not necessary.

3. Increase outdoor play time. There is an old Scandinavian saying that says “there is no bad weather, just the wrong clothing”. We try to live by this in my house. Studies say that kids with higher levels of fitness scored higher on standardized tests – especially in math and reading.  I mentioned invitations to play in #1 above, well nature provides us with a giant invitation to play. Children thrive on unstructured outdoor play. This could be at the park or in your backyard. For younger children, collecting pebbles and sticks and building with them, or for older children pretending to be pirates or playing house, are all valuable learning experiences. When it is hot we lather on the sunscreen, turn on the hose and play in the backyard. Usually my kids come up with some kind of made up water park, fill and empty watering cans into the bushes, or make soup out of weeds, mud and flowers. In the rain, we put on our boots and jackets and go on puddle hunts, and in the snow, we bundle up and make footprints, snow angels and snow families. Loose outdoor parts such as sand, sticks, stones, shovels, utensils all provide with plenty of learning opportunities!

4. Limit extracurricular activities. This is a giant blanket statement but I’m going to say it. Kids are overbooked. Structured activities are fantastic for learning and socialization, my kids have done gymnastics and karate, attend classes at the library, and frequent museums, aquariums etc. However, while these activities certainly have their value, it is equally as important to provide (or even schedule) downtime for young children to play. It is ok for kids to be ‘bored’, it is out of that boredom that they will learn to keep their minds actiive, inventing, imagining and creating.

5. Say YES! Give yourself the freedom of teaching your kids to play ‘by the rules’. We think that a shovel is meant for digging, a bucket is meant for carrying, and a hose is meant for watering. While we, as parents, are meant to teach our kids how to stay safe and follow social norms, this doesn’t mean that we need to hinder their creativity and original thought. Especially when playing outside, my kids rarely use objects for their intended purposes. When my daughter wears a bucket as a hat, wielding a plastic golf club as a sword and a water table cover as a shield, I have to stop myself from saying ‘No, that is not what we use those for’. I have to make a conscious effort to applaud her creativity, tell her that she has fantastic ideas and then allow her to lead her own play (safely of course). It is sometimes difficult to say ‘yes’ when allowing our kids to play and carry out a thought. But by providing ourselves with this freedom, we are allowing their minds to explode with opportunity to engage in that creative thought that such great learning can stem from.

Recent research suggests that children should experience twice as much unstructured time as structured play experiences.

I highly encourage you to enter to win the Genius of Play sweepstakes to win $250 in toys! I entered…and have taken the pledge to bring more play into my kids’ lives! For each pledge taken, the Genius of Play will donate a toy to a child in need.

Unstructured Play

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post. I received compensation from the Toy Industry Association to express my thoughts on this subject, all opinions are my own.

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  1. says

    Play is so important! Unfortunately it is not valued as much as it was I think when we were kids. My 2-year-old loves pretend play — lately her thing is to put a purse around her arm, push her dolls in the stroller, and go “shopping”. I try to let her have ample time to play by herself. Of course, there are times I would love for her to play, like when I’m cooking, and she refuses! 😉

  2. says

    These are all such great ideas. I totally agree that play is very important. My oldest son just started kindergarten this year, and I didn’t sign him up for any of the activities before/after school because I wanted him to have that time to let loose and play. He loves building, and is very creative. My twins are obsessed with playing with trains and cars, but maybe I can encourage other play with the invitations that you suggested. They all love to go to the park no matter what the temperature.

  3. CourtneyLynne says

    I am wooden toy obsessed!!!! I feel kids learn a lot better basic skills with simple wooden toys. They also get more imaginative. Swear I’ve purchased every Melissa and Doug item ever made for my daughter lol

  4. says

    Well, it should come as no surprise, I loved every word of this. Every point. Every rationale. I have a post that recommends against toys with buttons, songs, and sounds in favour of blocks and other “open-ended” toys. You and I may have been separated at birth 😛 Scheduled for facebook and pinned into every board it could possibly fit into.

    • kchiavarone@gmail.com says

      Seriously…separated at birth for real! I’m going to go hunt down your post now!! Thanks so much for sharing <3

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