The Importance of Play for Children

Which Is Better? Structured Play Or Unstructured Play?

childrenWhen 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 –

  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Speed

Structured activities will generally target some/ all of these skills and will improve a child’s competence and confidence.  ball

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.leaves

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

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.

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  • Michel

    You are right when you say that some children prefer structured play and others unstructured. I believe in a balance of both, but all children should have lots of time to play freely, after all they are only children once. The problems come in when they don’t know how to play freely and always want to be entertained with structured play.

    Structured play is great for educational purposes, and it challenges the children to do things that they wouldn’t think to do on their own. 

    I teach dance at a local pre school and I find most love it, but can only do it for 20 minutes to a half hour before they start loosing concentration. Even though we are ‘playing’ and learning, you can’t force them to do too much at this age.

    • Hannah

      Yes I agree, that children should be given the oppourtunity to play freely as it helps them build independance and learn how to entertain themselves. My son has no problem with this and prefers to play alone. My neice however struggles with free play and likes to be led and told what to do, my sister does struggle with this. My neice is getting better though.

      I do agree that structured play can only be for a limited time as children cannot concentrate on one thing for too long.

  • Daniel

    Very informative article.Personally, I think that we should mix structured and unstructured and allow our kids to play in their way but still guide them what is good and what not. If we left them on their own I think that it can have consequences in their later life. I hope that this topic will help all young parents how to guide their children.

  • Richard Hoffmann

    Hello Hannah,

    As someone who has grown up before the explosion of the online technological world, play time meant only one thing and that was the physical act of playing without the inclusion of the technological element. 

    While there are positive and necessary skills developments resulting from both structured and unstructured forms of playing, is there a scientifically developed formula to reach the optimum balance or is this balance something that needs to be developed by each parent based on the child’s individual needs?

    Thanks very much for a great article in addressing the complex balance parents are faced with the successful development of their children.


    • Hannah

      I think the balance has to be set by both the child and the parent, there is no one size fits all as we are individuals and we all have our own likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses. That is what makes us all amazing, that we are all so different.

      My son and my youngest neice are quite similar in a lot of ways, but they are also so different and this can be seen in how they learn.

  • Lona

    Recently I have heard a lot of people talk about the importance of unstructured play. Probably because parents today are trying so hard to help their children with organized activities. I think there are fashions in raising children as well and maybe sometimes they over correct problems. What do you think?

    • Hannah

      Oh yes there are definitely fashions/ trends in parenting. Strutured play vs unstructured play are just one of many.

      There is a huge push towards unstructured at the moment as there is a worry that children are unable to ‘think for themseleves’, however as with most things moderation is key, it does not have to be all or nothing.

  • Marchelle Leandra Davies

    Finding the perfect balance between structured and unstructured play is often times nearly impossible and unlikely to achieve even for the greatest of parents. I do agree with you that we should not worry about it if our children are playing in a more structured or unstructured environment because both types of play allows your child to grow. I think that a lot of times this is how the children discover their likes and dislikes and build their social skills. As long as your child is partaking is both structured and unstructured play in both an indoors and outdoors setup, I am sure your child will grow up perfectly normal and healthy.

    • Hannah

      I agree with you, there is no perfect balance as one size does not fit all, however there is a balance which will work for both you and your child.

      I don’t strive for perfect parenting, but I do strive for what works well for my son and I. What works for us will not work for everyone as we are all individual and that is not a bad thing.

  • Nate

    Interesting article, I was a massive fan of unstructured play when I was a kid, running around pretending I was a detective, batman and a whole host of characters. 

    I did however play sports a couple of  times a week, which at that age was more a mixture of play and the sports. So I felt like I got a decent mixture of both. 

    It seems to me that both are equally important!

    • Hannah

      Your article really made me smile as it sounds so much like my son.

      Yes both are just as important as each other!

      Thank you for your comment.

  • Strahinja

    Hi Hannah,

    thanks for this post. I didn’t t know that all play activities are put in thesetwo types.

    I think that both are very important and that parents should also follow indications(signs) from their children, where they see their opportunity to develop.Playing with ball is definitely great for all the things you listed – speed,coordination, agility, balance. Maybe also climbing, of course on the safe way,to put some safe object that child can climb on. Some easy puzzles and similargames also. It is important for children to develop left and right hemisphereproperly.

    I’m not a parent still, so I can’t tell for sure, but I would let my child befree to choose the game/activity it wants. I like the picture you put with akid playing with autumn leaves. It is a pure joy, at least it was for me andsometimes I like to go on a pile of leaves when I stroll around.



    • Hannah

      I’m glad you found my article informative. Children make it very clear what activities they like and what they don’t like, letting children lead is great for all different reasons.

      All play activities have benefits for all sorts of reasons, children gain so much from even the most simplist of tasks.

      Loved your remark about still enjoying jumping in a pile of leaves, play is still just as important for adults as it is for children!

  • Nicki V

    This is a really great article examining both structured and unstructured play.  I agree with you that one isn’t necessarily better than the other type; they both have their benefits for the child’s development.

    I think it’s important to see that a lot of times, kid’s unstructured play and turn into structured play, especially when playing with other children.  They like to take on adult rolls and one kid will always want to be the leader/organizer.

    But with either play, it’s important to let them have fun.  Play is a great way to let their brains have a break from learning and find their creative side.

    Awesome article!

    • Hannah

      Oh yes I have witnessed this with my son when he is playing with other children. It is so interesting watching children play.

      Thank you for your comment.

  • Mina Kim

    As a kindergarten teacher, both Structured and Unstructured play is important in molding the kids’ development in four aspects, Physical, Emotional, Social and Intellectual.

    Like what you have mentioned,in Structured Play children are being thought on how to follow directions and rules which is beneficial as they get old. And Unstructured Play is where the kids are free to use their ideas without limits which helps them build their dreams, of what they want to be for example.

    I think having both equally will be perfect. And I agree with what you said that it will be on the parent’s hand to observe the child, and provide the balance the child needs.

    Thank you for this informative article.

    • Hannah

      Thank you so much for your reply, I try really hard to ensure my son has a good mix of both types as I recognise they both have benefits. It really is just finding the balance which is key!

  • Cath Anon

    Hi Hannah,

    Kudos on offering “uncomplicated knowledge and inspiration” in parenting.  

    Oft times, we may overthink things; which often then lead to making issues out of perfectly normal behaviour.  

    And oft times, it does not take an expert to assess the situation and do the thinking for you.  It is refreshing to read perspectives like yours.  It raises my confidence in relying on my own innate parental pragmatism.


    • Hannah

      Thank you for your comment, I agree I have often found the knowledge and experience more helpful and insightful than ‘experts’.

      I can relate to the ‘wanting someone to do the thinking for you’, I felt like this all the time in the early days, and even now have moments like that.

      Thank you again.


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