Unstructured Play & The Structured Child

by ChristinaPilkington on July 16, 2011 · 9 comments

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My daughter ran shrieking through the house, saying something about Zeus, and the Cyclops, and I think she mentioned Hercules in there somewhere. As she bounded up the stairs, my son zoomed past me, too. With a sword in one hand he yelled, “We’re the bad sea monsters, and Shaggy and Scooby are going to help us defeat the Hydra!” 

It all started with the Magic Tree house series. My kids adore their Jack and Annie adventures. So, when we read Hour of the Olympics, I also checked out a book about some Greek myths. Both my kids were enthralled with the old stories, as they are drawn to all things involving adventure, monsters, and heroes, as I suppose most kids are.

So, I’ve brought more Greek things into the house. We’ve watched documentaries about Ancient Greece, watched animated versions of many of the myths and Jim Henson’s the Storyteller: Greek Myths on Netflix.  We’ve read several books in the Good Times Travel Agency series, so I checked out the one about Ancient Greece.   I also found at the library with Greek projects.

Their play intertwines and weaves what we’re reading together with the characters they like to watch on T.V., the places we’ve travelled to, and the ideas we’ve talked about that come from living. It’s incredible to listen to how they make sense of it all through their play. It’s only after long sessions of pretend play that they come back with well thought-out questions and insights. It’s after play that they draw wonderful things and come up with creative stories.

But this creative, free play disappears when most children begin attending school or start school-at-home.  Being placed in a disjointed learning atmosphere where they go from tracing letters, to filling out addition worksheets, to reading a story about worms, to eating lunch, to a hurried twenty minutes outside, to painting a picture, to reading a story about doctors at a hospital, to sitting in groups reading from a leveled reader; they jump from activity to activity without having time to digest it all let alone weave it together into a connected whole.

In The Serious Need for Play, a February 2009 article featured on the Scientific American website, psychiatrist Stuart Brown discusses his research into the childhoods of 6,000 adults. I found it incredibly fascinating that his research indicates that adults who do not experience significant amounts of unstructured, imaginative play when they are children have difficulty becoming socially adept, coping with stress and developing problem solving skills.

Let’s take a look at the difficulty at becoming socially adept. How does play help children to grow and develop socially? It’s through play children can take on different roles. They can try out the role of being a mother or father, an artist or an adventurer. They also learn the valuable skills of sharing, empathizing, cooperating and collaborating. Young kids need hours of this type of play every day, not just thirty minutes during “free time.”

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me the social benefits of play are far greater than memorizing dates and facts that can be looked up on Google or spending hundreds of hours “learning” how to read when kids will pick up reading very quickly when they’re ready. It’s also pretty incredible to me how people think homeschooled children are not well socialized when children who do not attend school are in the position to spend an incredible amount of time in unstructured play, which is critically important in learning how to work and live with others.

Then there’s the difficulty of coping with stress. Think about the times you’ve felt the most alive, the most free, when you’ve totally lost track of time. Chances are you were involved with some type of play.  As adults, if you’re lucky, that might even be an activity that you’re getting paid for, too. Some adults run, or get lost in a story, or talk with friends, or paint, or do Sudoku, or bake a cake. The play may look different as you get older, but its importance remains the same.

But today, many children find they hardly have any time for unstructured play. They may seem like they’re playing when they go to soccer practice, or playing piano, or coloring a picture in a classroom, but if it’s not an activity of their choice, if someone is directing the activity and there’s little room for creativity, than it’s not play. And when children do not have most of their day to play, in purposeful, meaningful activities, they experience stress. If adults have little say in how their day is spent, they experience stress, too.

And we wonder why teens, adults, and sadly, even children, experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex? They feel a need an escape from their lives. They need to enter a state where their mind is free to take off in a million directions. They need to feel relaxed enough to do the things they want to do. It’s unhealthy, self-destructive, and often damaging to those around them, but no one has shown them, or rather allowed them, to have time to themselves, or to develop a passion or creative outlet that relieves the stress of normal living.

Finally, there’s the idea of problem solving. Many people think of math or logic when they hear the term problem solving. It sounds like something difficult, something they want to avoid. But we are born problem solvers. It’s something we WANT to do. Little children solve the problem of communicating with others, getting to where they want to go, figuring out how to avoid danger, deciding the best way to get a person’s attention, and a thousand other problems.

It’s when children are suddenly placed in a situation where they are given inauthentic problems, problems they could care less about, that they start to resist. On top of being given inauthentic problems, they are suddenly being graded for how well they’re doing.  They are told they are “failing” at something, or they are behind others in solving these problems they never wanted to solve in the first place.

Children who grow up in freedom to come up with their own problems to solve don’t learn to be afraid of failure. They see something not working the way they’d like as simply a part of the problem solving process. Through play children learn to see things in different ways, to combine unrelated things in unusual ways and persist in accomplishing their goals.

The importance of play is well known. It’s been written about in dozens of scholarly journals and researched by hundreds of people. The positive link between lots of unstructured play and creativity has been proven again and again in the lives of notable artists, musicians, scientists and other eminent people.

Here’s a few more links to check out correlates unstructured play with creativity and personal success.




So, if we know unstructured play, and lots of it, is so important, why are most children’s lives so directed for them? Why are they not allowed a lot of time to just play? Who might benefit from children growing up being used to someone else telling them what to do all the time, and from having a large percentage of adults who don’t have strong passions, goals, or the desire to live independent lives?

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey


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  • Tessa W

    I have to remind myself to get more involved in their play. My older boys play so well independently and it is incredible to see their imaginations run wild! And it never ceases to amaze me how much they learn by my letting them just be kids. I need to let their fun and creativity rub off on me too. Great post :)

    • christinapilkington

      It is hard sometimes to remember to play with them when they do play so well independently. My twins are now almost 8 and they can play for hours at a time on their own without needing anything from me. It’s nice that it’s a lot easier for me to catch up on things that need to be done, but it feels a little sad that they need me less. And I also have to remind myself that even though we do other fun things together during the week- going to park and the theater or taking them to friends’ houses to play or even taking a bike ride together, it’s still important to play the pretend games and other things that are really important to them. It’s still amazing, even at age 8, how much they need large amounts of unstructured play to develop their creativity and process the other types of learning they do.

  • Tabetha

    I get concerned about too much play. I have a two year old and a four year old and I know that when I am not engaging them, they will find little stuffed critters or other trinkets to do imaginary play with. In a way, it’s good, but in another way it’s not. Children are amazed by the real world and we should do our part to involve them in meaningful activities and engage them. Letting them sit on the couch for hours while we use the computer, watch tv, or clean the house is not always as developmentally appropriate as the scene depicted above. Children do need to play, but they are also tiny beings growing into adults. We should make sure that while they are still little and amazed by the real world and love to fold clothes and wash dishes that we don’t discourage them so that as adults they can feel happy and successful doing “chores” or “work.” Repetitive imaginary play without outside stimulus likely has very little positive benefit. On the other hand, when we spend time with our children, introduce them to new objects, environments, ideas etc., and get involved in their play, I think imaginative play reinforces what they are learning throughout the day and is beneficial and does help relieve stress. However, so often these days HS parents talk about play and unschooling etc. I think there is a fine line between this kind of play being a response to being ignored mentally and emotionally versus being a source of reinforcement for new ideas.

  • http://acresoflearning.blogspot.com.au/ Paula

    I don’t really want to write this but I think it’s important to share.
    When my little man was 4 or 5 yo I wondered if we was going to be one of those people who go off the rails in Stuart Brown’s article. Because of his social difficulties school was extremely negative. Add to that two stressed parents and world that was determined that it was discipline problems and you have a child who might just turn out very disturbed. Luckily I realised I was his only advocate and I felt I was forced to pull him out of Grade 2 to recover his health.
    Then I spent 3 years trying to ‘school’ him. He still can’t read well. So at Christmas I started unschooling. His only rules are that he must finish his morning jobs (teeth, breakfast, make bed, etc) before playing – otherwise I would be on his back about it until lunch time, and that is just so negative.
    Anyway, 3 months later and he has move forward in his maturity, play and creative skills. He is really starting to live for now and look toward the future rather than just living in another world.
    I can’t believe how lucky I am to be forced out of the school environment. Now I hope he will let me start playing beside him occasionally.

    • christinapilkington


      Thanks so much for sharing your story here. I think all kids are naturally great at play and are very creative. It’s just that when they have to stay for so many hours at a place that doesn’t honor this about them, those traits tend to fade away and seems like they are gone forever. But if you take most kids out of that environment and give them time, they’ll blossom again, just like you’ve seen with your son. I’m so glad you’ve given him a chance to be his unique self and develop his gifts and talents to their fullest potential.

  • tereza crump

    This is such a great post.

    My children play pretend all day long. Most of their pretend play (they are 9, 6, 4 and 2 years old) revolves around animals and their habitats and what they must do to survive. They build nests, swamps, dams and prowl, attack and eat each other. Now, where and when would they be doing that if they went to school?

    great post… I have a post ready that will go up with a link to one of your posts on unschooling. thank you for taking time to shine light on so many issues regarding the real education of children and their parents.

    • Anonymous

      Exactly! Play is essential for learning, and pretend play is the most important type of play for young children. It’s so sad that young children are not allowed hours of uninterrupted play each day when it’s the most important way for them to be healthy and grow.

      I’d love to read the post you’re writing. Can you let me know the address of your blog?

  • http://theflathomeschool.blogspot.com/ Kelleigh Orthmann

    Great post and thoughtful questions Christina! The connections between unstructured play and learning are so clear that it always amazes me that some of the “best minds” in education continue to ignore them. So much in our society needs to be categorized and quantified in order to be valued. Is public education any exception?

    It seems that our mainstream educational system is so encumbered by the need to be accountable that, out of necessity, it has created learning environments with very little room for individuality and unstructured play. Any learning that takes place has to be categorized by subject matter (reading, writing, social studies, science, math, etc.) and covered during distinct times during the day. And standardized tests quantitatively measure whether enough learning has occurred all while comparing unique students against one another. Yikes!

    In this environment, learning is no longer fun. The sad part is that so many public school-educated students go on to just follow the herd. And who benefits from this? Big business, politicians? Hmmmm….I would think that the U.S. would benefit far more with independent, passion-filled citizens than with automatons. So, I don’t know…how much lower do our schools have to perform for someone to really start paying attention to how children learn best and make meaning (following interests and unstructured play)? When will all this “No Child Left Behind” and “race to the top” madness end?

    • Anonymous

      Kelleigh, you’ve described exactly what is going on in today’s public schools. There’s definitely an alternative agenda going on, and I think it’s becoming not so veiled anymore. If the evidence of how children, and all people, learn best is so apparent, there must be a reason those in power choose to ignore it. We need to start at an individual level to choose what’s right for our children. I believe the bottom up approach will be the only way to influence real lasting change.

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