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Children need unstructured play

A few years ago we were at the zoo and I noticed an interaction between a child and a parent. There was a conflict because the child wanted to stay and watch the giraffes but the parent was insistent that they needed to move along and get the next item on the laminated scavenger hunt list they were carrying around on a clip board.

Now, it might sound a bit judgmental of me, after all I have no context for this family other than the few minutes I observed and there are many valid reasons they might have needed to move along, but I’ve often thought about that child and wondered if they might not have benefited more from their zoo outing by observing the animal they wanted to for as long as they wanted to rather than rushing from animal to animal on the parent’s pre-planned check list.

That experience has stuck with me and reminds me not to cling too closely to my own plans when it comes to play.

Now, I am a parent who uses planned activities and crafts, has curated Pinterest boards full of book lists and ideas, and a library full of kids craft, cooking, science, and nature books. I love a good planned activity!

Chlldren need unstructured play

However, kids need unstructured play. You know, the kind that happens naturally and without all the control and advance prep work that we parents and caregivers are sometimes guilty of overdoing.

I think it is good for our children, and for us, to walk on the wild side and throw out the rules and the organized crafts and curriculum on a regular basis and just play.

Kids need a healthy amount of unstructured play, even boredom.

From that time and space, creativity and imagination have room to bloom.

I’m sharing five quotes from some of my favorite authors on the subject of childhood and play and why it’s good for our kids to just let things happen and go with the playtime flow.

“…by allowing rather than controlling, we give children a sense of freedom and autonomy.  Their play is open-ended, the choices and decisions are theirs to make, and the discovery process includes self-discovery.  Quite simply: children’s play flourishes when we “let it” rather than “make it” happen.

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne, M.Ed.

Children need unstructured play

“Just as it is important not to skip steps like crawling in physical development, it is important not to skip play, which allows for the development of a wide range of experiences, so that what is first grasped through action can later be learned anew through thought.”

You Are Your Child’s First Teacher: Encouraging Your Child’s Natural Development from Birth to Age Six, by Rahima Baldwin Dancy

The author gives a terrific example of how an adolescent studies physics and levers and remembers the childhood experience of shifting either forward or backward on a seesaw in order to teeter totter with a friend.

Real world play experience translates to real word knowledge.

Children need unstructured play

“Nature teaches us how the world works.”

“Imagination teaches us how to dream.”

“Play teaches us how to make our dreams real.”

Imagine Childhood: Exploring the World Through Nature, Imagination, and Play by Sarah Olmsted

Children need unstructured play

“If we watch a young child at play, we can see that through her constant sensory/physical interaction with the environment, she gains experience and understanding of the situation, of herself, and the relationship between the two.  She comes to know herself, the world, and what flows between.

Heaven on Earth: a Handbook for Parents of Young Children by Sharifa Oppenheimer

The baby tossing her bowl off of the high chair over and over.

The seven year old listening to her yells echo in the woods.

The toddler building block towers and then knocking them down.

It’s an amazing and wonderful thing to learn and explore the world and to see how we fit in it and indeed, even affect it as it affects us.

Children need unstructured play

Unstructured plays isn’t just great for kids, it’s healthy and beneficial for adults, too.

“Because play is so good for us, we needn’t feel guilty for doing it.  It isn’t a waste of time when we grown-ups do it, and it certainly isn’t a waste when children do it. Play is a catalyst that makes us more productive and happier in everything we do.

Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents by Christine Carter Ph.D.

Let go and see what happens.  Play! With no rules, no structure, no pre-planned outcome. Just play! It is good for them and it is good for us, too!

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Beth

    I totally agree! Some of it my personality coming out (I just don’t get into all the planning/activities) but our four year old has been expected to entertain himself for significant periods of time since he was pretty little. Ideas I’ve used to help with this (that have been mentioned on this site) are keeping his toys non-electric and imagination encouraging, rotating his toys, and not leaving too many out at once. I do let him play with”trash” like cardboard boxes or papers. We also read together a lot and he spends time just looking at books by himself. He does get play time with his parents but a lot of the time he’s on his own. He loves to create stories with his toys and he has a great attention span for his age. Now we need to work on his fine motor skills. Neither of us likes to color 😉

  2. Elizabeth

    Love this so much! Thanks for the encouragement and the book ideas!

  3. Pamela

    I love this. The most amazed I have ever been at my youngest son’s creativity was when he was sent to play with just a stack of construction paper, several rolls of tape, and child-safe scissors.
    He was totally obsessed with some TV show at the time, that had a game with little characters who are launched out of a cannon type tool and then emerged as a dragon or other character to fight the bad guys.
    He created his very own paper characters and working launch system. I was completely amazed!

  4. Kelly Fowler

    I think that every child deserves some personal space when it comes to playing. The freedom of exploring in his own way can make him realize some amazing aspects of the surroundings. For example, Matt, my youngest son, started to ask me a lot of questions about nature, the rain and how puddles are created after I let him play outside. Even if this is just one example, I think this kind of activity helped a lot to develop the curiosity and I don’t know if I could’ve achieved this level by making some properly structured activity.

    I am not saying to let your kid play by himself all the time, but once in a while, this thing can really help him develop his personality and creativity.

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