Understanding Structured Play vs Unstructured Play

Cute little boy playing with a railroad train toy

Understanding Structured Play vs Unstructured Play

One of the most important things your child does is play. Play teaches children about the world, allows them to explore, interact with other children, learn how things work, and how to solve simple problems. Of course, play also helps to develop motor skills, visual skills and higher level thinking while fostering creativity and imagination. Play is a critical part of early child development. You may have heard of the terms structured play vs unstructured play. We often refer to these as guided play and free play.

Structured Play vs Unstructured Play

What is Unstructured Play, or Free Play?

Unstructured play, also called free play is exactly what it sounds like. It is when a child simply plays. This is an important time of discovery and learning. There are no boundaries in unstructured play. Whether a child is engaging in unstructured play on their own or with other children, they are the ones who dictate the play, the engagement and the outcome. Free play is strictly for fun.

Unstructured play is dictated one hundred percent by the child, so it is open ended and it allows the child to make decisions that fit their interests and learning style. The focus of unstructured play is about the activity of playing, not the outcome.

Our job as parents and care-givers is to provide the time, the opportunity and the resources for unstructured play. For babies and young children, unstructured play should happen often and in many different situations. Babies should have plenty of supervised floor time (especially on their tummy) with age appropriate toys to play with and explore. Toys and experiences should be provided all day long in a variety of manners for unstructured play.

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What is Structured Play, or Guided Play?

Structured play, also called guided play, is not exactly what you would think. By “guided” we are not referring to the parent or care-giver actually guiding the child. In fact, the child is the one who does most of the guiding, the parent or care-giver is just present to bring the play to the next level. Closely observe what the child is interested in during structured play. You are then to follow the child’s lead to interact and engage in whatever is interesting to them.

Unlike unstructured play, structured play has a goal. The parent interacts with the child with a specific goal in mind to improve the child’s learning and understanding of certain concepts. You do not necessarily need to have a planned activity to have structured play, you just need to bring a little bit of structure into what the child is doing. It is important to note that structured play or guided play is not direct instruction or teaching the child. The play is still guided by the child, and they are still having fun and enjoying play.

Children learn and benefit the most from structured play when parents or care-givers observe what children are interested in, research has found. Then build on that by offering new materials and toys to expand the play. Ask open-ended questions, narrating what the child is doing to help them stay focused. Repeat phrases that children say, affirming them and challenging children with questions such as, “what would happen if we flatten the Play-doh before cutting off the edges?”

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Structured Play vs. Unstructured Play: Is One Better?

Research has also found that children benefit from a variety of both structured and unstructured play experiences. Structured and unstructured play can be applied to every type of play activity all day long. When we provide children with a variety of structured and unstructured play, they are more likely to develop the necessary foundational skills for additional learning and academic skills.

Authors, of Becoming Brilliant, Kathy Hirsh- Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff have outlined the key skills needed for future learning for young children. These foundational skills consist of collaboration, communication, content, creative innovation, critical thinking, and confidence. Both unstructured play and structured play help to create these important concepts.

Make sure your child has a variety of both types of play throughout the day by providing lots of time for play, age-appropriate toys and materials, different environments so your child does not become bored, opportunities for fine motor play and gross motor play. Get down on the floor and engage with your child during play as often as you can. Observe what interests your child has, and take the play in that direction. Talk about what you are doing, ask questions, make predictions, and include new levels of play to make it more challenging and expand your child’s learning potential.

About the Author /

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist and has been working in pediatrics for 20 years. Ketchum works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UPMC Pinnacle Hospital and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. Ketchum is also the owner/operator of Aimee’s Babies LLC, a child development company.

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