The Most Important Thing You Do Today May Be Nothing At All: The Benefits of Unstructured Play & How To “Plan” For It This Summer

Discovery Place Kids Huntersville

For many parents and caregivers, planning structured, educational play opportunities for their children is a high priority for their summer. And for good reason, too. (See our post on the summer slide.) However, more and more research is showing the great benefits of a different kind of play; they call it unstructured play.

In short, there are big benefits to self-directed, creative, child-led, unstructured play for child development and learning.

Research shows that less-structured time in a child’s daily life allows them to practice and hone the skills of executive functioning. Executive functioning is most broadly looked at as three skills— working memory, flexible thinking and inhibitory control. In turn, these skills enable a child to manage their thoughts, actions and emotions in order to get things done. These skills enable kids to plan, manage time and organize— and are necessary skills for life and success.

For these reasons, it can be said— the most important thing you do today may be nothing at all.

For children, unstructured play comes naturally. It is the way they interact with the world and learn about it. It is in taking all the couch cushions and fashioning a fort— which, inevitably, falls and must be rebuilt until balance is correctly executed. It is in setting up a tea party and serving biscuits from the play kitchen. It is in using reams of paper to craft the perfect paper airplane that can fly all the way across a room.

In each of these examples, the child is learning in a way that reinforces memory, problem solving and self-control in order to see the project completed. Unlike structured play and programs which force children into an all-similar activities and expectations, unstructured play celebrates ingenuity, individuality and reinforces executive function skills.

According to Katie Hurley, LCSW, unstructured play is key to healthy child development. Unstructured play promotes decision-making skills; builds gross motor skills; helps kids work through fears and stress; teaches conflict resolution skills; and helps creativity soar.

The key to unstructured play is simple— time. “When young children have adequate time to play on their own terms, they learn and grow at their own pace and build confidence and competence in the process,” Hurley says.

Though it seems counterintuitive, in a performance driven culture, unstructured play needs to be planned and preserved. Keep these tips in mind when planning to do nothing.

Fit it in

Ironically, unstructured play must be scheduled. Moreover, it must be seen as vital to child development as other endeavors, like sports and music.

Throw out the rulebook

Unstructured play is free— free of coaches, umpires and rules. Unstructured play, especially when playing together, requires children to negotiate terms, navigate complex social interactions, and set terms.

- The Understood Team, 3 Areas of Executive Function

Invite a friend

Unstructured play is about learning to take turns, play fair and not hurt each other. This type of play causes children to exercise social skills which they will use their entire lives. Play is the safe space in which children learn to interact positively with one another.

Be flexible

Unstructured play is just that— unstructured. Allow for things not usually seen as toys to become part of the playscape. The best forts are usually built from couch cushions and blankets, not blocks.

Though unstructured play time is seen as vitally important, there is a balance to achieve. Structured play— such as sports, board games, following step-by-step guides, etc. — are equally important to a child development. The key is to see value and make time for both.

Find ways for children to explore each method of play with equal fervor this summer. At Discovery Place Kids, we have a multitude of free play opportunities for kids. Our goal is to balance learning with play. We believe that while learning provides structure, play reinforces what is taught and leads to greater understanding and memory. Visit us soon to experience how we seek to do both for the benefit of your young ones.

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