This site provides information using PDF, visit this link to download the Adobe Acrobat Reader DC software.

Why unstructured play for your young child is important

Why unstructured play for your young child is important

Our first charge as parents is to protect our children, but sometimes our watchful ways can stand in the way of a child’s full development. Preschoolers and young children need a balance of freedom and control. One way to give them that opportunity is to allow them to participate in unstructured play.

Unstructured play puts your child in a secure environment that will stimulate his or her exploration, creativity, problem-solving and socialization skills. Children have this innate ability to teach themselves, if the conditions for learning are provided. Developmental psychologist Peter Gray, a big advocate of free play for kids, says self-directed learning starts in infancy. In this article by Luba Vangelova, Gray outlines ways to harness children’s natural ways of learning.

Unstructured, child-led play

The Montessori method does a wonderful job of balancing independence and structure for the infant and toddler. The very core of the Montessori preschool philosophy, after all, is built upon demonstrating how to do things while still nurturing natural exploration and providing the right materials to do so. While activities in a Montessori preschool class may appear to some to be unfettered and dictated by the children’s whims and interests, they’re established by the teacher consistent with the prescribed Montessori preschool ‘plane’ of development.

Research shows that the amount of time that children spend on playing and unstructured outdoor activities is an average of 12 hours per week less than the amount of time children spent on these activities 20 years ago, says Kendra Thornton, Ed.D., Lower School Director at The Summit Country Day School. What’s more, over the past 20 years, the amount of time children spent involved in structured sports has doubled.

“Children need time to explore things in depth,” Dr. Thornton says. “In our efforts to produce Renaissance children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity.”

She suggests parents ask these questions:

  • Do we make sure kids have open spaces in their schedules to process their experiences and to let things “soak in” or are we “always on the go”?

  • Are we guilty of too much extraordinary and not enough ordinary?

  • Do we make time for our kids to play in a natural, creative way?

  • Do we allow unstructured play so children can pursue their interests, express their personalities and learn how to structure their time?

  • Do we spend time with our children with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time together?

“Spending time with children, just for the pleasure of it, convinces them, more than any activity we can sign them up for, that we cherish and value them,” says Dr. Thornton. “What our children really need is us.”

Unstructured play, aka free play, is when we give children the freedom to play on their own. No rules. No adult-led activities mapped out. Adults can be involved in an unstructured play session with a preschooler, but merely as participants. No directions should be given. This child-led play should not replace structured play, says Amanda Rock, early childhood education author and blogger, but room should be made to include it, so a child’s early development will be fuller and more well-rounded. 

Unstructured play and brain development

You might remember the “Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies’ campaign. Well, unstructured play has been proven to help build a child’s brain. The experience of play positively affects the neuron connections in the brain, creating new circuits in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain where problem-solving, planning, and emotions are controlled.

This interview on National Public Radio with researcher Sergio Pellis describes how free play builds stronger brains. And by “free play,” Pellis stresses that means no rules, coaches or officials. This free play phenomenon appears to be innate not only in humans but other species. There are apparently natural “rules’ that emerge that demonstrate things like taking turns, not hurting each other and fairness are developed with unsupervised peer play. This free-play--helps-build-stronger brains link is also supported by the Childhood Development Institute, a clearinghouse of child info that connects parents with helpful child-rearing resources.

Examples of unstructured play to use with your preschooler

One of the greatest aspects of unstructured play is the simplicity of it. Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, older sibling or that favorite aunt or uncle, unstructured play time requires no great commitment of resources or time. (The experts suggest 60 minutes a day for a preschooler.) Depending, of course, on the time of year, weather, indoors or out, etc., the number of unstructured play ideas is limitless.

Here are some ideas:

  • Age-appropriate toys

  • Blocks – old-school wooden ones and larger cardboard ones

  • Chalk – sidewalk and chalkboards

  • Paper towel rolls

  • Play shovels (snow, sand, and yes, dirt)

  • Sticks and rocks and more dirt

  • Painting – artwork and painting objects too

  • Music – an impromptu preschool disco party

  • Sponge balls – various sizes and colors

NOTE: With all due respect to online educational games and such, let’s put way the phones and tablets for this exercise.

Add some unstructured play time

Think for a moment just how unfettered we were in our childhood. It was not uncommon for many older kids in my generation to spend the entire waking day out ‘free-playing’ if you will, checking in only for dinner and maybe lunch. (Imagine that today.) Use that same philosophy and apply it to your preschooler. Give them the space and time.

When ‘structuring’ a little unstructured play for your child, don’t be scared. A little less structure will be good for them – and you too.

--By Jay Cooper

Related links and resources:

Montessori Preschool at The Summit Country Day School

Child Development Insitute resources

Scholastic magazine's Make Way for Play article


About Kendra Thornton:

Kendra Thornton is the Director of the Lower School at The Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio. A licensed clinical guidance counselor, she attended the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University and holds a doctorate degree in education from Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Thornton can be reached at