Why is unstructured play so important?

Those of us who are parents AND educators probably question both our teaching and our parenting more than anyone else. We’re aware of the research and the data when it comes to learning and the brain. For that reason, I found the following from guest writer Andy Earle intriguing both from the perspective of an educator and as a parent and I hope you do as well.

Guest post by: Andy Earle

Unstructured play

You might not think about it, but unstructured play is incredibly important for developing your child’s personal and cognitive abilities. Unstructured play is a crucial activity for your child to take part in as it is more helpful to your child’s developing abilities than traditional structured play.

Unstructured play, or free play, is simple in practice: just take the rules and throw them out the window.

This means your children are free to enjoy having fun in their own creative, rule-free way. Here are some more details on the differences between structured and unstructured play, along with more reasons for why unstructured play is vital to children.

The main difference

Structured and unstructured play are different in many ways, but the main characteristic that sets them apart is that an unstructured play activity does not contain any concrete rules or guidelines. Playing make believe is a typical example of unstructured play.

Other examples may be running around at the park, climbing trees, or ignoring the instructions that come with a model or block kit. On the contrary, hide and seek, tag, board games, Simon says, and building models according to their instructions are all examples of structured play. In many cases, unstructured play is more appealing and more beneficial to children.

Here are the benefits

Physical exercise

Playing outside, engaging muscle memory, and building strength are all important for your child’s physical development. Many forms of unstructured play involve all three of these components. Furthermore, letting your child play on their own and allowing them to explore the world around them will develop their sense of curiosity.

During unstructured play they will discover new aspects of nature and the physical world and find unique ways of approaching and answering the problems they face. The physical exercise and mental stimulation of free play will also give your child a constructive outlet for letting out their pent up energy. Structured play is often not as tiring as unstructured play, leaving your child with excess energy that they may use in a non-constructive way.  

Cognitive development

It’s important to begin nourishing and challenging your child’s brain from an early age. There is virtually no better way to ensure this than unstructured play. During unstructured play, your child can explore unlimited options for creativity and problem solving, all while having fun!

Their brain will grow stronger and more flexible when they are forced to find new ways of accomplishing tasks and entertaining themselves. This is incredibly important, as later in life your child will need this skills in order to overcome times when they are forced to improvise and abandon their previous plans. Unstructured play reinforces problem-solving skills and, moreover, prepares your child for the later stages of the teenage years.

Sense of freedom

Another benefit of free play is that it develops your child’s sense of independence. You may at first thing of this as a dangerous slope, but all children need a taste of freedom to grow into confident leaders. If a child is told always to follow rules, they won’t be comfortable when faced with situations they aren’t prepared for. A constant state of observation and restriction may even lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression later in life.

By allowing your child to engage in free play, you are encouraging them to explore their own strengths and interests, express themself, and practice a leadership skills that will become important later in their life. They learn to cooperate, compromise, assert their opinions, and look for creative solutions. These are all traits of a good leader, and come hand in hand with the freedom of free play.


We strongly believe in the benefits of free play and recommend that you allow and encourage your child to engage in unstructured play. The freedom it provides will help their brain develop in important ways that strengthen their creative and analytical capabilities. Unstructured play provides more opportunity to exercise, builds leadership qualities, and inspires new ways to go about problem solving. So go ahead and give your child the reins when it comes to their free time, you might even be surprised what they’re capable of.

Author Bio:

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.

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A Teacher's Guide

I am a National Board Certified educator currently teaching in Virginia. I have taught the following: English 9, 10, 11, and 12 (on academic, collaborative, and honors levels); Dual Enrollment English; Mass Communications, Yearbook, Newspaper, and Communications Technology. I have experience in five different school systems, four in Virginia and one in Maryland. I served as my school’s 2019 Teacher of the Year and was a top five finalist for the Teacher of the Year for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I am passionate about recruiting and retaining quality educators in our public schools. Let me help you find your path to changing lives through teaching!

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