The Pure Joy of Play: Why Kids Need Unstructured Fun

What is unstructured play and why is it so important for a child’s development? Katrina Thoma, CRNP Sadler Health Center’s Director of Medical Services, shared her expertise on the subject and why she thinks encouraging unstructured play is so vital for children.

The main difference between structured and unstructured play is how much choice the child is putting into what they are doing. Structured play revolves around schedules and rules, often times the parents are the ones doing the decision making for the child. Unstructured play grants the child free choice, they are the ones choosing what they want to do and how they want to do it. A common example of structured play may be organized sports, where too often over time kids no longer want to play or enjoy participating after being forced into the sport. Unstructured play is meant to actively encourage the imagination and the choice of the child.

While it should be encouraged from a young age and comes naturally in curious infants, Thoma identifies the age of two as a vital time for the encouragement of unstructured play. Naming them as the “ultimate explorers,” toddlers are at a point in their life where they are extremely curious, so it is important not to hold them back. Do not stop them from climbing or trying new things; let the risks happen so they can learn and grow their imagination.

There are no real disadvantages to unstructured play, believes  Thoma. It simply allows children to play freely, have fun and let their imaginations run wild. Parents stepping in and ruining the spontaneity, along with too much reliance on the structure of schools for development by society are what hinders unstructured play. While introducing structured play is still fine, it is important to find a balance. Put thought into what is being used in the structured play and find a way to mix it with unstructured activities. Think about what you say, trying to encourage the imagination rather than interfere with it. For example, if a child is playing with a Barbie in a teapot on a hot day, say something like “Is Barbie taking a swim in the pool?” to encourage their imagination and play. What one says and does around children influences the way they act and think. Offering encouragement for their imagination will help in their long term development.

Sadler Health Center looks to encourage its clients to introduce their children to unstructured play from early ages and always encourage their imagination. As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Thoma works with her patients by offering anticipatory guidance, giving advice on how to encourage free play and enable strong development in their children.