The Importance of Unstructured Free Play

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Photo by Milica Nistoran/Shutterstock

Children of all ages take part in structured active play through sports, classes or school. This type of play is wonderful for many reasons such as the physical and health benefits to the social and emotional benefits, However, all children need to take part in free play as well and, unfortunately, unstructured active free play is disappearing. Is it that adults are dismissing it as a waste of time or is it something that is being curbed because it is thought to be too dangerous? No matter the reason, unstructured active play should be a part of a child’s everyday life. 

What is Unstructured Free Play?

Unstructured free play is child-initiated and child-led active play where children decide everything or almost everything. Children decide how to play, where to play and with what and whom to play. Adults can participate and help facilitate the activity, but for the most part, adults do not provide direct instruction to the children. This type of play is natural to children, but they must be given the opportunity to learn and develop in how they are involved in free play.

Children’s free play is a form of communication and expression. It combines thoughts and actions, and provides satisfaction and a feeling of achievement. It is instinctive, voluntary and spontaneous. Free play, along with the basic needs of nutrition, shelter and education, are vital to healthy physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Children who are engaged in unstructured active free play improve their strength, agility, fine and gross motor control, and physical confidence. These children also see growth in conflict resolution, cooperation, socialization and negation. Unstructured play helps develop a child’s emotional growth with better self-regulation, conflict resolution and impulse control. Additionally, children who are engaged in unstructured play gain literacy skills, critical thinking skills, and are able to practice experimentation and independent thinking. Through play, the whole child is developed.

What You Can Do

Provide the opportunity for young children to engage in free play. Allow them to take small risks and to run and play in the space around them for the sake of playing and enjoying themselves. At first, children may need some facilitation, but after a little experience and practice, the children will be ready to lead the play.

Challenge yourself to provide free play opportunities today and every day. 

  • Send your kids outside to play in the backyard with no instruction. If this is something new to your children, you may have to get them started with ideas of playing in the trees, looking for critters or going on a nature walk.
  • Next time it rains, encourage them to go outside. Most kids won’t need anything but permission to play in the rain. Let them get as messy as they would like.
  • Take them to a creek or lake and allow them to explore the water. Have buckets and sticks available to help them as they explore.
  • Encourage them to collect sticks. They can be anything from part of a fort to a sword, let the children decide.
  • Ask them to build something with only what they can find in the backyard. Let the children’s imagination run wild.


Categories: Fit Family, Health and Development