Which Is Better? Structured Play Or Unstructured Play?
When it comes to play, play, and development, there is a lot of debate around which is better for children, structured play or unstructured play. Should we allow our children the opportunity to play how they like or should we be providing them with constant activities to stimulate their mind?
On a personal level my son will always pick unstructured play, he is a lot better at doing unstructured activities but he is at his happiest being left to his own devices, making up his own games in his own world.
However, from a learning and developmental viewpoint, is my sons preference putting at a disadvantage compared to those children who prefer structured play? like my niece.
What is structured play and unstructured play?
Although there are many different types of play, all play activities can fall into two different types, structured and unstructured play.
Structured play generally involves activities that are usually adult led and there is an end goal, instructions, or rules. The majority of structured play will involve a lot of logic and problem solving skills, and can involve activities such as board games, making models or crafts, or a ball game.
Unstructured play, also known as free play, generally involves activities that are child led that uses a lot of creativity and there is no ending or rules. The majority of unstructured play will involve improvisation and imagination, and can include games such as bricks, drawing/ colouring, and small world play sets.
The benefits of structured play
Structured plays helps children’s learning and development in the these four areas –
Structured activities will generally target some/ all of these skills and will improve a child’s competence and confidence.
The benefits of unstructured play
Unstructured play allows children the freedom and opportunity to do what they want and focus on what they want. What exactly a child will want to do will vary greatly from child to child, some children may choose to engage in structured activities but other children will be happy to roam free and let their imagination run wild.
Free play gives the child an opportunity to learn skills at their own pace without any pressure, if a child chooses an activity, which is usually structured, allow them to continue but give them the opportunity to take the lead.
Children are just as likely to learn vital skills through free play as they are structured activities, it just more on their terms than ours.
Structured play vs. unstructured play
Both types of play are just as important as each other, however the questions should not be which is better, the question should be which type of play is more appropriate.
Structured play is more suitable for classroom or club environments where adults are trying to engage the children in a particular task and/ or learn a particular skill. Parents/ caregivers can also do these activities at home to further strengthen skills, especially in areas where a weakness has been identified, or as part of family time or a seasonal activity.
Unstructured play is more suitable for the home environment where children should be allowed to unwind and ability to play with their own toys on their own terms. Classrooms and clubs will often allow children the opportunity to play freely, especially during designated break times.
The key to structured and unstructured play is to ensure children are getting the right balance.
How do I know my child is getting the right balance?
As a parent there is often this huge pressure to ensure everything is just ‘right’ and that everything is perfect.
The truth is, if your child goes to school or some form of childcare, chances are they are getting more than enough structured play. That is not to say that you cannot engage in these activities at home, of course you can, but do not worry or obsess over structured play.
If your child spends plenty of time at home amusing themselves, chances are they are getting more than enough unstructured play, so again do not worry or obsess over unstructured play or feel that you suddenly need to enrol your child into some form of childcare or club/ group, or do these structured activities yourself.
Instead, remember these vital points –
Allow your child plenty of opportunity to engage in free play – if you feel there is not enough time then consider freeing up some time, look at your calendar
Look for a wide variety of structured activities that your child could possibly engage in; be sure to take into consideration your childs likes and dislikes as well as price/ resources required
As your child, talk to your child and find out what they would want to do? Is there something in particular they want to do? On the other hand, do they feel like they do too much?
As well as a balance between structured and unstructured, do not forget balance indoor and outdoor activities.
My child is not interested in structured/ unstructured play!
Firstly, it is important to remember not to stress, worry, or force your child into doing something they really do not want to do. Overall, what is the most important is your child’s wellbeing and happiness.
I get how frustrating it can be, my son is not a huge fan of structured play. He is getting a lot better, thank you childcare, but he is at his happiest when left to his own device.
This has caused me quite a lot of stress, worrying about his development, the future (school is all about structure), relationships.
It has also caused a lot of embarrassment, its horrible being the only parent whose child is NOT participating in the activities in baby/ toddler groups.
It always felt like my son was the only one running around whilst the other children were fully participating in whatever it was we were supposed to be doing.
Still, I kept going and my son must have enjoyed them as he always asked to go. It was not all bad; we did have times where my son did fully participate and I could sit there and relax.
The truth is, despite struggling to get my son to participate at groups, arts and crafts, letter and number games, sports. My son is turning out fine and all reports today are that he is pretty average for his age.
Moreover, it always amazes me how much he actually does take in even when it appears he is not paying the slightest bit of attention. He is like a sponge and he does not miss a thing.
I think sometimes it is easy to forget that babies/ toddlers/ preschoolers/ children/ adults/ people are all different. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We all learn at different paces. We all like and dislike different things
This is ok, it is fine. Nothing to worry about. Despite all our differences, we all get there in the end.