When educators and psychologists discuss early childhood development, you’ll frequently hear them speak about the importance of unstructured free play.
What exactly is unstructured play, and why is it so important?
Unstructured free play means all forms of play where children are directing their own play without adult interference. Common examples would be infants playing with blocks, toddlers blowing bubbles, preschoolers playing hide and seek, and children of any age inventing their own games without adult direction.
Unstructured play can also involve common sports equipment. For example, an adult might be eager to teach a five-year-old how to “correctly” kick a soccer ball or take a slap shot with a hockey stick, but children at this age want to explore how to kick, throw, and shoot on their own. It’s part of their natural impulse to learn how things work.
The famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget classified this behaviour as part of the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, and he emphasized that it was essential to each child’s growth and learning.
Preschool and early elementary age children who play in this manner are not “wrong” or “failing” to listen. They’re doing precisely what their brains need for healthy learning and development. From this perspective, adults who insist on directing young children on how to “play correctly” are essentially impeding the process.
Unfortunately, despite its importance, research shows that children’s free play has been continually declining [PDF] since about 1955. This is due in large part to adults increasingly wanting to control children’s activities.
For example, as parents have become more concerned about their children’s long-term academic and sporting success, they have steadily sacrificed time previously allotted to free play in favour of more structured activities. More parents are enrolling their toddlers and preschoolers in music lessons and organized sports than ever before.
At the same time, schools have reduced opportunities for unstructured free play by reducing recess breaks in favour of more classroom instructional time.
As psychology researcher Peter Gray observes, the change is visible [PDF] in our streets and parks:
“Today, in many neighbourhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.”
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for structured activities. It’s simply important that adults introduce structured activities at appropriate ages.
Children need opportunities to organize their own play in order to develop their “executive function.” According to a 2014 study, children who engage in too many structured activities may actually experience inhibited development of this aspect of cognition. This means they may become less able to regulate their personal behaviour and formulate their own decision making.
Preschoolers need a lot of unstructured free play. In contrast, older elementary children benefit by having a larger proportion of structured activity alongside unstructured play. Whatever the age, the enduring lesson is that there needs to be a healthy balance between structured and unstructured play that respects the developmental stage of the child.
To get an idea of the kinds of unstructured play activities that are appropriate at early ages, check out our physical literacy checklists. They also provide ideas for the kinds of loosely structured activities are appropriate in the preschool years.