Unstructured Play and Physical Development in Children

Why Play Unstructured?

When it comes to development of a child’s cognitive, social and physical wellbeing, the time spent inside a class room may not mean as much as the time spent outside at a playground. Playing is a crucial part of a child’s brain development, so much that it has been recognized as a birth right. The United Nations High Commission for rights of a child states,

“That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and arts.

That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.”[1]

The nature of a child’s play has drastically changed over the years. The time children spend playing outside has greatly reduced. They are usually engrossed in playing with their iPad, phones, tablets or watching TV. Children these days also engage in learning various forms of art like music, dance, painting etc. Parents often have planned sports activities for children to ensure that they spend some time outdoors. Activities such as these may be of interest to the children and definitely add to their talents. However, this has significantly reduced the time for unstructured play and development.

Play is generally classified into; structured play and unstructured play. Structured play is when an adult/parent has planned a specific manner in which play will happen, for instance organized sports classes are structured by an adult. Children most definitely benefit from such activities, although giving them the opportunity to have extended periods of time outdoors where they invent scenarios like playing police and robber or enact to be a school teacher or build a fort etc. give them the independence to solve small issues they face during the activity and determines how they want to play.

Unstructured play is the kind of play where the child decides on how to proceed with a game and has no set rules or methods. Unstructured play could involve a child playing alone, with play mates or even with parents. Both, structured and unstructured play are important for a child, only the intent of both differ.

Unstructured play can happen both, indoors and outdoors. However it is much more beneficial to let children older than toddlers to play out in the open where they have more options and opportunities to create stories with flexible things like a leaf, stones or even sand. As parents it may be difficult to leave your children unattended particularly outside the convenience of your home. Unstructured play does not mean children are left loose in an environment with no rules or without any dult supervision. It is only a child’s ability to direct a play, the games they play which could even be dress up but with no end goal or learning objective.

Free imaginative play is important for the healthy development of a child’s brain. Unstructured play allows children to be creative and develop their imagination skills. Children often benefit when as parents, you participate in their play. However, sometimes it is necessary to let them gain a sense of direction on their own. It is through such play that children at a very young age begin to interact with peers and learn to work collaboratively to learn skills such as sharing and resolving issues. When a child plays freely, the game he plays is self-directed where he creates a world that he can explore and master all on his own. They develop new competencies that allows them to practice decision making, they move at their own pace and have the freedom to choose and decide what interests them.

Unstructured play helps children learn about various things around them. Children often enact various adults they see often and this is their way of experimenting with role play and making sense out of what they have observed. It gives them an idea about certain things, a sense of freedom and control over what is happening. They can make mistakes without feeling under pressure. It is through unstructured play that children develop various skills including their verbal and social skills.

Unstructured play is also essential for the development of the child’s behavioral and physical aspects.

The child develops the skill to learn, which also helps increase the child’s adaptability to change. Play also increases a child’s emotions like empathy, compassion and sharing when they learn to engage in activities with other children. The National Association for Sport and Physical Educations recommends that preschoolers engage in some form of unstructured play for a minimum of 1 hour daily.[2]

Parents must ensure that their children have enough freedom to play and explore things on their own. Let your children amaze you with their creativity and let them play without a purpose. As a parent, you can still be their play mate, the only difference being that the play will not be directed by you but by your child. Free play is one of the most cherished and memorable aspect of every individual’s childhood, so let your child “just play”.


Dr. Naveen Kumar



 Dr. Naveen Kumar G,

Specialist Paediatrician

Aster Clinic, International City









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