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The importance of unstructured play, or really just any play for kids

First of all What is Unstructured Play you ask?

Unstructured play or free play is simple - it means letting a child be a child with no interference from parents or adults on how they should be playing and spending their own time.Children can engage in open-ended play that has no specific learning objective, there is no strategy behind it and no directions to follow. The play is based on how the child sees it "pretends " with their own minds and how they mimic adult dutys.When children engage in unstructured play, their play is motivated by their own desires and curiosity, and guided by their own mental rules.Free Play is something that they willingly engage in, deciding for themselves when to start and when to stop. Unstructured play doesn't necessarily mean a child plays alone.In fact your child may roleplay with other children,each choosing the roles they want to play, where they improvise and imagine scenarios

So there is 2 types of play

Unstructured play & structured play


Unstructured play

Unstructured free play is creative and open-ended the child is free to start and stop when they like , they create and see as they please, there is generally no rules or guidelines to follow , unless they child makes up the rules .A child can improvised with no set goals , no boundaries and unlimited possibilities. They imagine. Example

  • building a house out of blocks how your child imagines it,

  • picking up a paintbrush and painting whatever they chose freely

  • wrestling with siblings, playing games with no main goal - just for fun, (floor is lava,)

  • finishing school and free to play as they choose

  • dressups, loose parts play , open ended toys,roleplay

  • using sticks and other natural objects as swords, imaginary things

Unstructured play takes many shapes and forms , its pretty much sums up to

  1. Play that your child enjoys,chooses and immersing themselves in without a authority figure (parent , teacher,coach) - giving directions.There is no time constraints, no goals , just natural learning and curiosity guiding them with their imagine

structured play

Structured play Is goal-oriented play, It generally involves using logic to solve problems,Structured play involves following rules or instructions to reach a particular goal.It means that an end result is expected out of that play/activity. It can be mental or even physical activity and involves specific learning. Usually, structured play activities are done under supervision (Parent, coach, teacher). Examples

  • following instructions on how to build a lego house ,car model, experiment toy

  • Going to art class after school , following planned lesson, painting a number to colour painting

  • going to karate lessons, soccer , ballet , playing games with a goal and rules

  • finish school and have to go to a structured class/lesson group ( music, speech)

Structured play sums up to play that has a pacific purpose

- to learn, win and follow directions.The play has structure , start and finishing times, rules and instructions to follow, the play is " controlled"

Why is Unstructured play so important?

Unstructured play -  plays a vital role in child development.

According to the American Academy of Paediatricians (AAP), unstructured play is essential for healthy brain development.

Playing helps young brains develop, The experience of the "playing " affects the connections between neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls thought analysis and decision-making),Play is helping kids develop executive functions like the ability to regulate emotions and solve problems. Research also suggests that pretend play helps foster abstract thought and the ability to envision other perspectives, Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children get to practice different activities during play and see what happens.Experts say that unstructured play teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

7 Benefits of Unstructured Play

Through unstructured play – both solo and with friends – kids develop and reinforce a number of life skills including:

  1. Creative thinking – thinking outside the box to solve problems. Creative thinking helps kids excel in the classroom, their careers and their hobbies. Creativity and imagination: Because there are no fixed rules to follow, children can make their own games and guidelines. This opportunity to create and use imagination is important to cognitive development.

  2. Conflict resolution – sharing and fair treatment of playmates. Conflict resolution teaches kids ethics, relationships and about treating people fairly.

  3. Decision making – Who does what, helps who or takes the lead? Decision making helps people take action and is key to strong leadership.

  4. Problem-solving – Problems are an everyday part of life. Problem-solving helps kids overcome everyday challenges and builds resilience.Problem-solving abilities: Children work together during unstructured play to solve problems. While activities should be supervised, unstructured play allows children time to work together on problems and resolve a conflict or question. Even if the play is with an object (blocks) and not another person.

  5. Negotiation – swapping, agreeing rules and responsibilities. Negotiation will help your kids learn about compromise and how to agree a solution.

  6. Resilience – things don’t always work out the way we hope. Resilience teaches kids about life’s ups and downs and the importance of perseverance.

  7. Teamwork – playing with friends or siblings. Teamwork is an essential skill in play, family life, the classroom, workplace and in society! Social skills: Unstructured play encourages social skills and teamwork. Children take turns, learn to listen and share with each other, develop imaginary scenarios and make decisions together. Because they are the ones driving play, they have the chance to learn on their own among friends.


Stages of Play

Below are the 4 stages of play according to Dr. Smilansky, which contribute to a child’s development and learning. These are:


Functional play

Functional play has been described as the first play of children. Beginning in infancy, as a child learns to control his actions and make things happen, he finds enjoyment in shaking a rattle, splashing in the bath, and dropping objects repeatedly from his high chair. These repetitive actions are slowly replaced by more complex forms of play, but functional play is enjoyed by children throughout their childhood as they discover new actions to master.1

Infants first learn to exercise their “wired-in” behaviors with simple actions, and as they discover how things work, they develop their motor responses. Repeating a behavior leads to mastery and that gives the child pleasure. Play begins when the child deliberately engages in the activity for pleasure

What is Functional Play?

Any repetitive action that the child finds enjoyable is considered functional play. Throwing objects, opening and closing things, stacking blocks and then knocking them over, filling and dumping containers, pushing a toy back and forth, and banging objects together are all examples of functional play.

The benefits of functional play

The repetitive nature of this play is how children learn about their world. They learn about the properties of physical objects and cause and effect.

These simple discoveries prepare them for learning more complex skills later on. Children also develop their gross and fine motor skills through practice and gain confidence as they develop new skills.



Constructive play

When children manipulate their environment to create things, they are engaged in constructive play. Experimenting with materials, they can build towers with blocks, construct objects with miscellaneous loose parts, play in the sand, and draw sidewalk murals with chalk. Children learn basic knowledge about stacking, building, constructing, and drawing, discovering which combinations work and which don’t.

Constructive play focuses the minds of children through their fingertips to invent and discover new possibilities. It is a form of hands-on inquiry where children seek to learn something they don’t already know by physically manipulating materials. They have a natural desire to find out things for themselves, and children build knowledge through active questioning and information gathered as they engage in constructive play.

what is constructive play?

By the age of two, children are able to play for longer periods of time at one activity. They move from functional play, where the child uses materials in simple, repetitive, and exploratory ways, to constructive play with purposeful activities that result in creation. Children’s desire to create is satisfied with open-ended materials, such as blocks, paints, scissors, paste, paper, carpentry tools, wood, sand, and water.3

On the playground or in classrooms, sand boxes offer a great opportunity for constructive play. Using shovels, buckets, and other containers and toys, children have an endless number of opportunities for exploration.

The benefits of constructive play

Playing with sand encourages the imagination and creativity of children. Constructive play develops imagination, problem-solving skills, fine motor skills, and self-esteem.

Research has shown that block building can help children learn important spatial relationships needed for mathematics.Children who are comfortable in manipulating objects become good at manipulating words, ideas, and concepts. Creating gives children a sense of accomplishment. Controlling their environment empowers them, especially since there is no right or wrong in their creation. Constructive play helps children develop character virtues, such as tenacity, flexibility, creativity, courage, enthusiasm, persistence, and adaptability. Social interaction and shared imaginations are often involved in constructive play, which leads to children learning to cooperate, stay on task, self-regulate, and be more responsible.



Games with rules

Games with rules is a level of play that imposes rules that must be followed by the players. It requires self-regulation by the children who play, so they can successfully follow the rules and curb their own personal ego needs. Games with rules are often characterized by logic and order, and as children grow older they can begin to develop strategy and planning in their game playing.

what is games with rules?

School-age children are often found on the playground playing games with rules at recess. They could be enjoying a game of marbles or jacks, playing hopscotch or foursquare, or chasing each other playing tag. Team sports require very specific rules that must be followed that promote cooperative play and teamwork. Whether children play a game of softball on the playground or a soccer game in uniform, they must follow the rules to play effectively. Board games help children develop reasoning strategies and skills when playing games, such as chess, checkers, and Chinese checkers. In strategy games they must consider both offensive and defensive moves at the same time to succeed. Many board games have been adapted to be played on electronic media. New electronic games are being developed all the time for children of all ages including toddlers. The games require practice to master the challenges and often allow children to imagine they are in a fantasy world as they play through the game. While electronic gaming was usually a solitary activity in its earliest days, there are a lot more opportunities for group play in today’s gaming world

The benefits of games with rules

When children initiate their own games with rules, they realize the need to determine rules for playing the game as well as the rules for social interaction as they play their game. They may modify an existing game to their own rules or the game might be a game of competition in a motor skill, such as jumping, with rules to determine a winner.4 As children develop the concept of their game, they need to negotiate with each other to make the game enjoyable for all players with various skill levels. Adapting the rules to make the play fair for everyone makes the game more fun.School-age children develop understanding of social concepts, such as cooperation and competition, and are able to think more objectively. They are able to grasp the concept of the game having a clear beginning and end where they are required to take turns and follow certain procedures to complete the game.



pretend play

Pretend play is a form of symbolic play where children use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas using their imaginations to assign roles to inanimate objects or people. Toddlers begin to develop their imaginations, with sticks becoming boats and brooms becoming horses. Their play is mostly solitary, assigning roles to inanimate objects like their dolls and teddy bears.Preschoolers, from ages 3 to 5 years, are more capable of imagining roles behind their pretend play. Their play becomes more social, and they enjoy make-believe play. They assign roles to themselves and others involving several sequenced steps often with a predetermined plan, like pretending to be at the doctor’s office or having a tea party. Pretend play, is also called imaginative play, is a form of unstructured play that involves role playing, non-literal behaviour and object substitution. If you see your child pretending to cook,pretending a sticks a sword and their a knight ,or perhaps pretending to be a "mom" taking care of her dolls, that's them immersed in imaginative pretend play!

Experts believe that pretend play is a vital contributor to a child's normal development and here's why:

It improves creativity and imagination

A recent research found that early pretend play helps encourage a child's creativity and cognitive flexibility. By playing an imaginative game, no matter what it is, children are training themselves to think creatively, to exercise their thinking and imaginative skills and more importantly, independence.

It's like Albert Einstein's famous saying - "Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get you everywhere."

It encourages emotional and social development

Children are dabbling into the emotional and social roles of life when they play different roles or control things in their own environment during pretend play. Engaging in imaginative play improves a child's sense of self, how the world works, how they fit in the environment around them and how it feels like to be in someone else's shoes.

When they play with other kids, they learn even further - they discover responsibility and how to share it with others, cooperation, empathy and boundaries.

It helps develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills

It all seems simple to us adults, but the mere act of pretend play presents plenty of problem-solving opportunities to little ones. They have to decide what game to play, what toys or materials are needed to play, what role to take on, who else will be involved, what rules will apply to the game and more.

Further along, they will encounter "problems" they will need to solve or scenarios they will have to think about carefully. Their little brain will constantly be at work recreating what they observed from real life.

"For example, your little one is pretending to be a mom cooking a meal for her children. She engages in abstract thinking, trying to play out scenarios based off - her memory. If she remembers you frying eggs or pouring out juice in glasses, she's likely to act those out."

If your child is collecting sticks and twining grass around to form a ninja sword that's pretend play

Additional Research on the Benefits of Pretend Play

Studies show that the importance of pretend play in child development extends beyond simply language development.

  • Smith and Simon (1984) found that play can enhance children’s creativity and problem solving skills.

  • Bagley and Klass (1997) and Stone and Christie (1996) found that when books and other literacy-related materials were added to dramatic play, children used more varied language and showed an increase in reading and writing activities.

  • According to Pellegrini and Galda (1980), children who re-enacted stories with a beginning, middle and end demonstrated improved story comprehension as well as an understanding that others can have different thoughts, views, feelings and beliefs.

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