The Benefits of Unstructured Play

Photo by  Malcolm Garret  from  Pexels

Photo by Malcolm Garret from Pexels

Last year, the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) came out with a wealth of resources detailing the importance of unstructured play.  

According to CPHA, unstructured play “ is play where children follow their own ideas without a defined purpose or outcome.” Unstructured play can include climbing trees, hide and seek, wrestling (rough and tumble play), play with loose parts and play at varying speeds (bike rides, skateboarding).

Why was it important for the CPHA to dedicate time, research and the creation of resources that highlight the importance of unstructured play? In large part because unstructured play is extremely beneficial to a child’s development. Also, access to unstructured play has steadily declined since the 1970’s and we need to bring it back!

Unstructured play has a number of benefits to a child’s development:

Unstructured play can include climbing trees, hide and seek, wrestling (rough and tumble play), play with loose parts and play at varying speeds (bike rides, skateboarding).
  • It is important to a child’s mental and emotional health

  • It promotes creativity

  • It helps develop conflict resolution skills

  • It improves gross motor skills

  • It fosters the development of resilience and independence

Yet, for all the good it generates in a child’s development, access to unstructured play has declined considerably. And here are a few reasons why:

  • Greater emphasis has been placed on academic achievement 

  • Parental concerns around safety 

  • The elimination or significant reduction of recess in some schools

  • An increase in screen time

  • More time dedicated to structured play (organized sports)

  • Lack of time 

Image by Miss_C from Pixabay

Image by Miss_C from Pixabay

Remember shouting “car!!” while playing street hockey as a kid? Remember the hours spent building forts in basements or backyards? Remember playing outside with the neighbourhood kids until dark? For many, those are just memories. Life has changed dramatically for kids. Kids are chauffeured from one structured activity to another. They are often spending their down time staring at a screen. While structured activities are beneficial and the screens aren’t going away, a child needs to play in an unstructured way. A child needs to freely explore, test boundaries,  get their hands dirty just for the sake of getting their hands dirty. It’s good for their development.