Why Unstructured Play Is Important

Category: Play Therapy

Here at Treehouse, we play A LOT. Imaginative play, interactive play, musical play, creative or artistic play, structured play such as games and structured activities, and sometimes even outdoor play.

We also facilitate unstructured play, which is incredibly beneficial to children both in the therapy office and at home.

What is unstructured play?

The American Psychological Association defines unstructured play as “play that isn’t organized or directed by adults or older peers and that generally doesn’t have a defined purpose or outcome.”

Or as the Canadian Public Health Association puts it in their Position Statement on Unstructured Play: play that includes play at heights; play at speed; play with loose parts; rough-and-tumble play; and nature play.

What is not included in unstructured play? Organized sports, screen time, board or card games, and other organized extracurricular activities.

Why is unstructured play so important?

Research shows it plays a key role in children’s physical, emotional, mental, and social development.

Unstructured play builds self-esteem and emotional regulation when a child conquers a risky task like climbing or jumping.

It promotes children’s physical health by improving strength, fitness, and coordination. Children develop social skills, leadership skills, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills when given time for unstructured play with peers. Creative play helps children process life events and their feelings.

A child riding a tricycle

Description automatically generated with low confidenceBut unstructured play is on the decline.

Societal barriers that interfere with promoting unstructured play include an increased emphasis on academic achievement, social media messaging that affects parents’ fears around child safety, and geographic or socio-economic factors that limit access to safe play spaces.

While governments, school boards, and local community and childcare policies impact these societal factors, individual families can make changes to increase their children’s access to unstructured play.

How can you incorporate unstructured play into your child’s life?

Simply encouraging pretend play at home is a great place to start.

Pretend play can involve toys you already have in your home, simple household items, or natural materials from outside.

Keep art materials on hand for free drawing/painting/creating time. Most importantly, let your child lead the unstructured play.

Following your child’s imaginative play ideas will demonstrate care for your child and will strengthen the parent child-relationship. So go play!

Emily Works, LMFT