How do you “structure” unstructured play?

If you haven’t noticed, unstructured play is pretty en vogue these days.  Articles touting its importance, experts saying kids need more, that it’s becoming a lost art form, that without it your child may become a criminal—articles leaving you awake at night wondering a) what the heck unstructured play is and b) if you’re a terrible person because you haven’t scheduled it in to tomorrow’s agenda.  Ugh.

Never fear.  Unstructured play is just a new phrase for something very old.  Something that animals do, and that kids naturally tend towards in every activity.  For example, remember when they were two, and could be entertained with an empty Kleenex box and a gum wrapper?  When they used shoes as telephones?  Remember the last time you set them down to chutes and ladders and came back to find them using the board, upside down, as a slide and the pieces as a marching band?  That, my friends, is unstructured play—activities that are steeped in imagination and creation; activities that downplay agendas and end-goals.  Unstructured play is when no one is looking towards the finish line.  It is the zen-moment of free time.  And what’s more, all it requires are the natural gift every child has:  an imagination.

Why is unstructured play so great? Because it promotes exploration, creativity and independent thinking.  What’s more, it gives you, the over-burdened parent, a little break.  Leave them be and let them figure out what to do with a half an hour.

Easy. Right? Ummm… no.  At least not for me and my brood.  There are so many other factors that go in to getting a child to conjure up an interesting and attention-capturing activity all by themselves.  Assuming that I’m not the only one with issues in this realm, I hereby dedicate the rest of this post to how to achieve those unstructured moments.

How do you de-structure your kids playtime?  You fight the urge to entertain.  You turn off the t.v., the playstation, the wii, and the ipod.  You leave them with materials and let them create their own fun.  They’ll be bored to start with, but out of desperation, they’ll figure it out–this is especially true if you’ve got several children of the right age–they’ll feed off each other.

Here are, in my experience, the most common obstacles for children left to their own devices, and the methods that I have dreamed up for dealing with them.  I very much look forward to hearing from readers who have also tried to incorporate undirected playtime into their child’s daily routine!

1)  Your child is unaccustomed to this new way of doing things.  They’ll come to you claiming their bored.  Stay strong. Unstructured play may mean that your kids are bored—at first.  That’s okay.  Empty hours teach kids how to create their own entertainment.  Start cleaning. They’ll do anything to avoid it or they’ll come up with a game out of an empty toilet paper roll and a plunger?

You can help them get started–show them that you value playtime by watching, smiling at their antics, encouraging what seems like a creative move.  If you end up getting sucked into play time, don’t look at the hour of your life that you spent playing trains, or aliens, or whatever as wasted time–you’re setting an example for those young impressionable minds.  Letting go of reality for a little bit is okay. Maybe a little awkward at first, but ok.

2)  You’re not sure which toys to allow during this ‘free’ time. Emphasize the benefits of “true toys” such as blocks and dolls, with which children use their imagination fully, over passive toys that require limited imagination.  Even better, send them outside, where the materials of creation abound.

3)  You’re not sure how long to ‘force’ unstructured playtime on a reluctant child.  Start small, of course.  If your child is always plugged in, withdraw them a little at a time.  Alternatively, if your child hasn’t yet discovered the draw of electronic entertainment, don’t encourage it.  Start limiting screen time now.  And by limit, I mean set a time and stick with it. One hour. End of story. The rest of the day find time to let your child be bored.

4)  Your child doesn’t want to play alone… he or she wants to play with you.   “Moooommm play with meeeeee.” I hear this all. day. long. Encourage your child to have friends over.  Organize a play group. When you do play with your child let them direct the activities, even if its hard for you.  “Look,” says your daughter, “I’m a whale!”, and then looks to you for direction.  Ask questions to inspire them, help them tap into their creative wells: “A whale!  Really!  What color are you, Miss Whale?  Where are you going?  Do you have any friends?”

If I don’t have time (or sanity) to sit down and play, direct this conversation while doing other things around the house. When you can tell your child’s really into some character make up an excuse to leave the room and let him finish “riding the space chair to the moon” on his own. I’ve noticed my son is much more creative when I’m NOT around. I tend to hide out and listen, sometimes I’ll even take an audio recording. A child’s creativity is absolutely amazing, if they just get going!

5)  Setting aside time for these activities isn’t working.  Ironic, isn’t it?  You’re trying to encourage spontaneous thinking during a time you’ve specifically set aside.  Let it go.

  • Leave your child at the dinner/lunch table–while we often get frustrated with kids playing with, rather than eating, their food, there is something about food that seems to get the creative juices flowing.  Use this to your advantage.  My oldest sat for an extra hour at the lunch table singing, to the tune of 3 little ducks, about his Grapes at Play.  We just let him be.
  • Delay meals and errands if your child’s imagination has carried him to another place.  Try not to interrupt those moments of unstructured play, especially if your child has a hard time getting in that mode.
  • Embrace distractions. Do you have the kind of child who get’s distracted easy? He’s on his way upstairs to get his socks so he can go outside… five minutes later you realize he’s still upstairs because he got distracted by the mechanics of his fan. Your first reaction is to yell “Child! I thought you we’re getting your socks!” If time and circumstances permit, leave him there. His brain is working on something. He’ll come outside when he’s done and move on to the next ‘distraction’.

Here are a few ways to get a reluctant kid started on the right track:

  • Start an obstacle course in the backyard, and then leave them alone with it (this works well with a few friends over).
  • Build a fort from blankets and cushions in the living room–they’ll take care of the rest.
  • Cardboard boxes.  Lots of them.
  • Dress-up clothes.  The weirder the better.  Second-hand stores are great places for hats and accessories.
  • Rolls of butcher paper and drawing utensils; also sidewalks and chalk.
  • Building blocks, tinker toys, or legos.

A recent report by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) finds that parents, in striving to balance both work and time with their children, have become increasingly efficient.  They fill their children’s lives with structured activities in order that their children can get as much out of a day as possible.  Then, they judge their success as a parent in the same way that they judge their success in the work force:  how much have we accomplished today?  Children’s progress can’t be measured in the same way.  Progress may be slow.  It differs from child to child.  And it is often not seen, happening deep in the developing mind of a little one.  Not only do parents end up frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of progress in their child, they end up stressed at what they see as their failure as a parent.  Relax.  Unstructured play is one of those ‘let it happen’ moments–go with it and don’t worry too much about the little details.  Leave your child undirected and marvel at how they choose to direct themselves!

17 Comments so far

Comments Feed
  1. Great post! Ironically I have one similar ready to post tomorrow! We could all use a little de-structuring in our day to let our imaginations run wild! For outdoor time, I would also suggest water or sand – even if its just a bucket filled with each. my little guy can entertain himself for ever with a puddle of water and a stick!

    • Erica – NO way! You know what they say; great minds think alike! I look forward to your post. Oh how right you are, water + sand + stick = awesomeness. How could I have left that out? Thanks!

  2. Great post! Here’s an article that adds a perspective on this vital issue:

    Giving Freedom Incrementally

    • Mike – Awesome article! I think learning to play in a way that’s unstructured goes hand in hand with learning to be independent. Great read, thanks for sharing!

  3. Nice post! We are all about unstructured play around here. My boys (3 and 4) love making scenes with Legos; talking to, and listening to, stuffed animals, turning the couch into a fort etc., playing some sort of firefighter game with a couple ropes and a skein of yarn… Sometimes they each play alone, sometimes together. I just step in to break up disagreements from time to time, but otherwise let them have at it. More often than not, I am laughing in the other room because they are so funny.

    • Melynda – 3 and 4! I often wish now, in retrospect, that I would have had my children closer together. Mine are 3 years apart, so they are just now starting to entertain each other, in another year I think we’ll be golden. Until then, I’m still the most sought after play mate. You planned well my friend!

  4. Lacey

    Think this post is screaming my name. Adan hates to play by himself, I need to find that kid some friends out here.

    • Lacey – Ya, that first kid is hard to entertain. Give Ed another 2 years and you’ll be golden too. Hahaha. What were we thinking!! You do need some friends, although we had a friend over today and all they did was fight, so choose your friends wisely. Ari seems to get along MUCH better with girls…

  5. I love this post. Unstructured play has been on my brain so much this summer. This post really helped me to straighten out all my random thoughts about it and get so much more excited about it. Thanks for tip #4 – we’re struggling there so I appreciate the advice!

    • Bring the Kids – Thanks! And you are very welcome! Yes, #4 is the biggest thing for us too, apparently I’m pretty fun to play with, which is weird because I really don’t get into like he does. Sigh. It’s hard being a fun Mom. (wink wink)

  6. […] types of rocks, identifying critter holes, having rock throwing contests etc. It was the perfect unstructured afternoon. I just sat on a rock, took in the sunshine and participated only when called upon. They […]

  7. […] 4. How do you ‘structure’ unstructured play? […]

  8. […] post is part of our (somewhat neglected) photo series on unstructured play. For more photos in this series click here. A Very miniVan […]

  9. […] a  picture tells a good story. This post is part of our (somewhat neglected) photo series on unstructured moments. For more photos in this series click here. Teaching science and coming out alive: Lessons […]

  10. […] post is part of a photo series on unstructured moments. For more photos in this series […]

  11. […] post is part of a photo series on unstructured moments. For more photos in this series […]

  12. […] post is part of a photo series on beautiful unstructured moments. For more photos in this series […]


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

    I don't blog alone! Meet outsidemom contributer Olivia