Unstructured play is overrated

I read a lot about how kids should have unstructured time to learn in non-sedentary ways. I totally agree. It’s just that I think it’s a conversation initiated by parents of overscheduled kids.

For homeschoolers, the idea that kids should have down time just being kids is pretty easy. After all, there are 14 waking hours of the kids’ days and for school kids 10 of those are spend dealing with school stuff. Homeschoolers don’t have that. They can do unstructured play all day long.

But I’m not sure that’s the best idea because then kids are not exposed to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own, in their small, home-based world.

Unstructured play would be heaven for me. If I could just read a book while they played all day I’d be so happy. But I don’t think I would have learned anything about how the real world really works.

And in my house, today, I have found I have three barriers to big chunks of unstructured play:

1. Brothers fight. If you leave two boys together to do whatever they want, they will start fighting. The tension of waiting for them to fight is nearly unbearable to me.

2. My younger son hates playing alone. He is just fundamentally wired to want to be with people all the time. So unstructured play alone just kills him.

3. My older son has Asperger’s and would be happy being alone all day. So unstructured alone time for him is dangerous: if I allow it all the time, he won’t learn to socialize.

This means that I am constantly having to fight against my wish that we could all just do whatever we want, peacefully, all day long.

And I’m starting to think that as parents become disillusioned with the idea of putting kids in school eight hours a day, they will also become disillusioned with the idea of unstructured play—it’s just another, overbearing extreme.

16 replies
  1. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    “Unstructured play would be heaven for me. If I could just read a book while they played all day I’d be so happy.”

    I think you hit on something deep here. Are you absolutely positive that this is impossible or unwise for you? I think a little unstructured play would do you a world of good.

    Is it possible a friend could watch the kids for a day and you could get a cheap motel room and read all day? Or perhaps with your creativity you could devise another solution.

    The “real world” has it’s place. But that place is beside all the places where the things that make life worth living happen.

  2. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I completely agree with you — I never thought of this before so thanks for pointing it out. “Unstructured play” has come out as a buzz word in this century because parents are now electing to fill up all of their childrens’ time with structured activities. We need this phrase now so that we can be reminded of how important it is. Prior to this, it wasn’t really an issue because kids were more often than not left on their own to do as they please. I am 40, and my friends and I often talk about the good ol’ days when we went outside to play somewhere in the neighborhood afterschool and didn’t come home until dark. Kids crave structure and guidance, but they also need to be left alone — its all about balance for everyone. Parents who send their kids to school often find there is much lacking in the experience so they try to make up for it in music, sports, and other activities after school. You are lucky in that you can do all of those structured activities that you see as being valuable to an education, avoid the useless stuff that one finds in a school, and then find time for unstructured play.
    While your kids are at the structured activities, by the way, fight the urge to watch them all the time. Let them have that in their world as their own. You go read a book and relax during violin, tutoring, skateboarding, or what-have-you.

  3. Nowgirl
    Nowgirl says:

    Hmmm. Good unstructured play requires the right social mix. Often siblings need outsiders for balance. What’s “unstructured” about good unstructured play is stuff you generally value – kids choose or develop their own games, collaborating and working out conflict as they go. But to make it work, you need the right group – just like you do in, say, a startup. For your older son, it may be just one other kid, not a group. And at first, you don’t get to kick back and read – you’re establishing parameters (like, the couch cushions are/ are not fort materials or we do/don’t allow gambling of toys during games or Here’s how you get a snack) while pretending to do other things .

    Unstructured play is total office prep.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a really good point. I was thinking it’s more like leave the kids to their own devices and see what happens. But I think you have the right idea. Kids want a mix. They don’t want tyrannical play (which, actually, is what I think gym class is) and they don’t want totally unstructured play.

      And, come to think of it, this is probably what we all like, in one way or another. Even at work — most employees like a structured environment to create their own moments of successes.


      • Nowgirl
        Nowgirl says:

        Exactly. It take a fair bit of strategizing and setup to get to the point where good things spontaneously happen in the space you’ve created.

  4. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    I don’t know, I more or less spent years of my life reading a lot of books as a child. I looked up enough to do decently in school and that’s about it. I think I learned about the world somewhere, sometime and those “lost years” didn’t seem to leave any impact. I wouldn’t recommend 10 years of your older son not having anyone to socialize with – but I doubt half a year will hurt him. And if your younger one wants to socialize – drop him off somewhere where he can hang out with other kids. They have a lot of years in front of them. If they are happy and not being traumatized I don’t think doing anything for a year will hurt them.

  5. Stef
    Stef says:

    You seem to equate “unstructured” play with “solitary” play. But isn’t a game of tag played by, initiated by, and organized by kids at a park unstructured play? As opposed to a kid playing in a sports league, for example? Both have social elements, but the league sports is structured and run by adults. Kids making up their own games organically is not.

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    unstructured play has become sort of similar to organic or homemade or natural. Those little words that make everything seem more…real. Or better. Or whatever.

    I think it’s funny how the homeschool blog has changed me so much. I’m 24 and childless. Always wanting to learn.

    This morning I woke up a bit earlier and made turkish coffee. I have no turkish coffee tools. It came out good. Not fantastic but good for such caveman tools attempt.

    I kinda pride myself for the ability to figure out life and getting things done without the proper materials…or the materials that have become necessary but only make life easier. No more than that.

    Anyway, as I was sipping my bit of coffee all proud of myself I thought about your blog and I thought my imaginary kids would have fun figuring out another way to make coffee. Turkish coffee is intense. i walked away a bit to grab tights from the laundry room, about two feet away, and the boiling mix overflowed making a mess.

    You can’t leave it alone.

    As I sipped I figured that making stuff would be fun for kids because it’s a door to learn more things. Like how coffee is an arabian word but the drink actually originated in the ottoman empire and turkish coffee (the method of preparation) was the most widespread type of coffee.

    we were poor in mexico so we built our own house. there was a lot of math and problem solving going on way before I hit 8th grade. but it was fun. and necessary.

    with that said, is there any way your kid can have any “unstructured play” while you assign them a project…with enough team/alone work. And you read a book in the mean time?

    I’m always nervous to share my viewpoint here thinking that to some people i may sound so naive (since i have no kids therefore i don’t know how annoying it is when they fight).

    But in a way I did have to help raise kids (my twin brothers are 3 yrs younger) and it was so uncomfortable for everyone when my parents were mad (and yelling) that I tried to think ahead when we were stuck inside during winter time in our tiny tiny house.

    I remember one time I made a life size ladders and chutes. then realized that I had no dice. So we made a dice out of paper.

    the process of making it with all the bright colored papers, and having to use our stuffed animals for the game was really fun. it took hours! but then we got to play.

    granted, one of your kids has asp. and the other one needs social stimulation. not the same as having a 3 yrs older sister that tries to keep the peace at home. but my point is that some projects need the parents’ help to get it started, or when they kids get stuck. but they don’t have to always be there. you can go ahead and read a book. and not all projects are just play, they are educational too. just problem solving is a wonderful lesson.

  7. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    I hear people say that unstructured play is important, and I agree.

    I don’t hear anyone say that unstructured play is the only valuable way to spend time, or that kids should only pursue unstructured play. Everyone needs a mix of things.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        i think we associate unstructured play with being the exact opposite of overscheduling and rigidity. so if those things are bad then unstructure play must be the healthy silver bullet to grow kids into great adults right? i don’t know, i just thought of that. must be because i’m drinking tea. and as everyone knows tea is natural so natural is better and it makes you smarter and all of a sudden you can walk on water ;)

  8. karelys
    karelys says:

    ps. i have to clarify that the only reason i know that coffee is an arab word but that the drink is original from the ottoman world is because i had to google how to make turkish coffee since my egiptian friends moved to florida.

    but i guess that proves that one tiny little project can be the beginning of the rabit hole of learning different things.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    So just to be aligned with your other blog, I have a suggestion for the tagline of this blog – Educational journeys at the intersection of structured and unstructured activities.

  10. The Running On Veggies Mom
    The Running On Veggies Mom says:

    I’m lucky and have three boys that are within three and a half years of each other, because the way children play depends on their family dynamic. My boys do fight, but they play too. Over the years they have wanted to play together and they have been “forced” (forced in the sense that it’s their brother(s) or no one) to play together. And yes, they’ve had to “go play” on occasion because mom just needed a minute or time to fix dinner. So I guess this whole concept seems like labeling something that just occurs naturally and already has a name. It’s called playing. I’ve never really thought of this natural play as well anything less or more than children playing. I’m forty two and also remember a time when children could just go outside and play as long as they were home for dinner. My children don’t have the run of the neighborhood like I did, and I do notice that they are a bit more needy than my brother, sister, and I were. But the idea of even labeling children playing as “unstructured” seems almost silly to me. Now, there is such a thing as children getting bored with the same old toys and games and they need a source of new material, whether it’s a book or some input from an adult.

  11. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I used to structure my unstructured play. Since our moms worked during the summer, my cousin and I stayed with my grandmother on the farm when we didn’t go to school. We were both only children and usually watched TV and read books together. After a few days of that, we got bored and decided to make an entire “camp” based on what we enjoyed doing when we weren’t in school. We created 10 imaginary people (profiles and all) who we enrolled in sports, gardening, and painting classes. We roamed around our farm giving “tours” to potential new camp attendees. We made our own camp song with lyrics and music along with a book that documented the history of our camp. We even had a radio show (I wish I still had those cassettes tapes now). It was all very intense. I call it my first “joint start-up.”

  12. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    While each person may have their own definition of unstructured play, I will define my understanding. Unstructured play to me means allowing the children to do what they will within boundaries of safety and kindness to themselves and others. I was the youngest of 4 children and loved the unstructured time I had in the summer. I was a gymnast who enjoyed the sport and achieved collegiate success there. I achieved academic success, as well. My parents were and are lifetime learners. I value the way my parents raised me and know how extremely fortunate I am to have had the upbringing I have had. My father always said to me while raising my children “let the children play in the sandbox as long as you can.” That means “let them be children for as long as you can without making them into little adults with all the pressures in life.” I also was careful to not have them in too many structured things. I cherised my childhood and developed my arts and crafts interests, writing interests, academic interests, volunteering, and, of course, gymnastics. I would write poetry, walk to the corner craft store and buy beads to make necklaces. My sister and I would take long bike rides equipped with a little burner and water and dry soup mix. We would take a bike riding break and set up “camp” and make our soup. Then we would return home. It was a freedom and adventure feeling that all children LOVE. I am still adventurous to this day! I also walked around town with my girlfriend and we would go into the florist and talk with them and then go around back and take stuff out of their bins (sounds bad, but I actually love gardening because of that). Of course, I would not allow my kids to go to bins or even walk around in town without knowing where they are going these days. I do, however, give them freedoms such as baking in the kitchen and allowing them to “mess up things.” I have learned that my little girl (12 yrs) can mix up a batch of cupcakes and icing and everything turns out great. She also made up her own herb mix and created her own croutons. She has parameters such as “no baking without an adult in the house” and “adult must have knowledge that you are baking or cooking.” However, I don’t sit in the kitchen and I don’t hover over her and she uses her imagination. I only allowed her this freedom after she learned all the safety issues and I was comfortable with that. She is also a great artist, writer, and explorer of the outdoors. She has made her own bow and arrow, has her own garden and has a book club with the kids in the neighborhood in the summer. She has designed many things and her creative juices flow. My 16 year old is the same way, but interested in other areas. He designed his own business cards and started his own computer fixing business. He did all the research, taught himself JAVA, and figured out what Best Buys Geek squad does for diagnostics. He has fixed computers in other states via some sort of remote system. My kids have had down time, they have had music lessons, gymnastics, fencing, swimming, track, etc. However, they can only choose one at a time and they have to finish what they start. They have also had academic interest in classes that we always support. I see todays childrens creativity lagging and their empathy and patience and determination skill suffering. Kids learn things about themselve, mistakes they make and how creative they are by allowing them to be by themselves to think without being constantly told what to do, how to be, how to think. Our family holds parameters and values and rules, but there is a point where they have freedoms to explore their interests and passions and try new things. I love that each of my children have and are developing into kids who get along with everyone, learn tolerance, lead those who are afraid, help those who are bullied, and know themselves well enough to pursue their interests into adulthood. My kids do not fight with each other. They help each other and even help tutor the younger one. They are best friends. I think too much of anything is not good for anyone. I think, in the end, I try to model the behavior I want my kids to have. I also need unstructured time to be creative, read, etc.

Comments are closed.