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The Importance of Unstructured Play in Your Child’s Life

unstructured play
You may have heard of unstructured play; it’s also commonly called free play, and it’s something that’s important for your child to experience in order to develop their cognitive and physical abilities. The rules for unstructured play are simple: there aren’t any.

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The Importance of Unstructured Play in Your Child’s Life

You may have heard of unstructured play; it’s also commonly called free play, and it’s something that’s important for your child to experience in order to develop their cognitive and physical abilities. The rules for unstructured play are simple: there aren’t any. Instead of revolving around restrictive rules and goals, free-play depends on your child to take the reins to create their own guidelines, ask their own questions, and find their own solutions. Ultimately, it’s an exercise in freedom, leadership, and creativity for your developing child. Here’s a more in-depth look at free play, along with reasons for why it’s so critical for your child.

Do as the Swedes Do.

To gain a broader understanding of unstructured play, it may be helpful to look at the Swedish concept of friluftsliv (pronounce FREE-looft-sleeve). In our podcast with Linda McGurk we explore this concept, which translates literally to, “free air life.” In Sweden, and some other Scandinavian countries, friluftsliv refers to a lifestyle centered on a non-competitive, non-goal-oriented relationship with nature. Children are taught from an early age to go outside and play by exploring the outside world. Even in the coldest weather, they are told, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

This relationship with nature ties in well with an overall understanding of unstructured play. Running a race, surfing, outdoor obstacle courses, and fishing are all fun ways to play outdoors, but none of them fall under the umbrella of friluftsliv, or unstructured play. They all contain rules and goals that restrict your children in terms of their possible abilities. Taking a walk, camping, hiking, kayaking, and playing in the water are all examples of free play that are in line with the concept of friluftsliv. Playing make believe is also another common example of free play. All these activities involve physical exercise—just like any organized sport—but take away the competitive spirit, along with the rules that may restrict your child’s creativity and problem-solving capabilities.

Engaging in these type of outdoor activities positively impact your child by teaching them to be curious and respectful of the world around them. They will ask their own questions, and learn the answers from their own experience.

unstructured play

Unstructured Play Enhances Cognitive Development.

In addition to the physical benefits of free play, playing without rules will help your child develop your child’s creativity, their problem-solving abilities, and their critical thinking skills. Your child’s mind is just like any other muscle, it needs exercise! Keeping your child constantly engaged in games and sports that tell them exactly how to think, along with what they are and aren’t allowed to do, does nothing to work some of the most important parts of their brain. When your child creates their own rules, it’s a complete exercise in improvisational problem-solving. And, on top of developing the essential skills mentioned earlier, free play will help your child develop a flexible mind. This is crucial, as it will prepare them for moments later in their life when they have to face unexpected challenges. This is especially important in their teenage years.

Improve Social Skills

First, free play encourages teamwork. Interacting with Lego(TM), building a fort, or playing make-believe, don’t separate winners from losers as there are no strict rules. In this way, everyone who plays together, works together. 

Let’s say there are simple rules, goals, or guidelines, such as “Let’s see who can build the highest!” Even with a defined goal, teamwork can blossom in competition without the risk of failure. Overall, the child can study their methods and compare them against a playmate to learn more about themselves and others. 

Free play facilitates the sharing of knowledge, which is a lot like playing on the same team.

 

Sharing is another great skill learned through unstructured play. 

For example, if there are a limited number of toys and everyone wants to play with the coveted monster truck or Barbie doll, conflict can arise. Dealing with conflict is an invaluable skill that many adults still to hone in their social lives. Fighting over resources can help children understand how to manage situations where their partner doesn’t want to share, perhaps encouraging them to learn how to effectively trade, compromise, or otherwise work together. Whether the outcome of unstructured disagreements results in a friendly solution or not, the experience of conflict management is a critical social skill that your child can carry far into their adult lives.

 

Additionally, interacting with other playmates who refuse to play by the imaginary rules, argue with a made-up scenario, or generally disagree, can benefit the child. It’s challenging when your friends don’t want to play along, which can influence a child to seek help, experiment with cooperation, or learn to better regulate their emotions. They might also learn to be more sympathetic to their friends when they notice that another child feels left out in the same way they’ve experienced in past unstructured free time.

Foster a Sense of Independence.

Another huge benefit of free play is that your child gets to flex their leadership muscles. Without a parent, mentor, teacher, or coach instruct them, your child gains a sense of responsibility for their play. This will help your child find the passions and activities they are naturally drawn to, along with pinpointing their strengths. They’ll learn more about their own sense of personality when they are free to make their own choices, too. This is an important aspect in your developing child’s brain, as feeling too controlled and restricted can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety later on.

In closing, we highly encourage you to allow your child to engage in unstructured play. It’s a concept that many cultures openly embrace as a factual way to improve your child’s way of life, and for good reason. It exercises many of the most important physical and cognitive muscles your child possesses. Unstructured play is the best way for you and your child to understand their greatest strengths, passions, and personality traits, and, to top it all off, it’s fun!

Author Bio:

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.

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