Playing is something that all children do – in fact – something that all children need for their physical and mental health. Play is important developmentally, as it teaches them to use their brains, enhancing cognitive development, building their imagination, encouraging interactive play, and using creativity as a vehicle for productivity.

But what is the difference between structured play and unstructured play? How can both types of play help a child’s development? And why, in particular, is unstructured play so important in a childcare setting? Let’s take a look!

What is the Difference Between Structured and Unstructured Play?

While the terms structured and unstructured are fairly self-explanatory, the difference that unstructured and structured playtime can have in a child’s life is profound. Structured play is playtime that has been carefully thought out and planned out to provide a child with a specific type of experience. Usually, structured play is the sort that’s provided by your child’s daycare. ‘

The goal of structured playtime is to introduce your child to new things in a controlled environment and fashion. This type of play allows the child the ability to develop new skills, to read, learn, listen, focus, pay attention and follow basic instructions. It also usually encourages interaction with other children to develop their socialisation skills.

Unstructured playtime, however, is almost the complete opposite. While it may seek to achieve some of the same objectives, it’s the alternative approach to playtime that instead develops your child’s individual capabilities. It’s a hands-off approach.

What is Unstructured Play For Kids?

Unstructured playtime, also called free play, will give younger children a sense of freedom, the ability to explore the world around them, to create, and do things by trial and error. Your job as a parent in these times is to facilitate the environment for safe, unstructured playtime. Whether that’s leaving your child alone (though watched) in the garden for an hour – perhaps providing them with basic toys, or the means to create ‘artwork’, such as giving them some crayons or paint.

The goal is to encourage your child’s innate sense of independence and allow them to explore all of the parts of themselves that will become evident during this time of unstructured, supervised play. This is where you might see different capabilities and aptitudes for specific things, this is also where they will learn this about themselves, too!

Unstructured play in childcare

What is the Role of Unstructured Play in a Child’s Development?

The main role of unstructured playtime – and this is particularly true in the presence of other children – is to foster a sense of independence in a child. The primary goal of any unstructured playtime is to give the child a sense of freedom to explore the world around them. It encourages them and their friends to come up with their own games, using their respective imaginations without rigid and at-times overbearing adult structure.

Specifically, it fosters a child’s physical and social development and has been shown to promote a child’s cognitive development skills as it allows the children to determine their own boundaries and set their own limits on their own capacity to do things.

 Unstructured Play Example

Let’s say your child and their friends are going to race down to the beach from the house (a brief distance, let’s say about 200 metres). Your child and their friends did this independently of you, but your child decides instead to take a shortcut that their friends did not know about. That unstructured play may have seemed unfair to their friends, but your child was learning to think differently about an objective and a problem in front of them and to problem-solve on-the-fly by taking a shortcut. It also smartly conserved their physical energy.

That’s just one example of how unstructured playtime allows a child’s brain to run wild and allows them to problem-solve, be creative, and increase their physical and mental capacity – there are millions of other example scenarios.

What is the Role of Unstructured Play in a Childcare Setting?

Unstructured play in what is usually a structured environment – such as a daycare – is invaluable to child development. Unstructured play in a childcare setting can take many forms, however, the goal of the educator in a childcare setting is to ‘free’ the children to make their own decisions and create their own games. This can be done in a completely unstructured way, or a partially structured way – for example – by outlining a loose set of rules but allowing for creativity to achieve an objective within that outline.

The role of unstructured play in a childcare setting is to allow the children to engage with one another in play, which allows them to intensely develop social skills at a rapid pace. If your child is intensely involved in interplay with other children in an unstructured fashion, they will rapidly develop social skills such as group problem solving, communication as part of a group, hierarchical structure understanding, and so many other integral skills that are critical to their development among their peers.

Creative Development

One of the key things that unstructured play does for a child is it forces them to utilise their creative skills, or if they’ve not developed them yet, it allows them the space to do so. Play of an unstructured nature allows the child to think freely and solve problems creatively. It also allows them to make decisions about how they are creative – if your child is prone to artistry, then they will often flock to crayons and colouring and drawing, or paint, as a creative outlet. Unstructured creative play allows a child’s imagination to run wild.

Creative and problem-solving skills in unstructured play

Problem Solving

Another way in which unstructured play is fantastic for your child is in its ability to encourage problem-solving development. This is particularly true if your child is put through a problem-solving exercise that is mostly unstructured. For example, hide-and-seek is a good example of invoking your child’s problem-solving skillset. A friend or other child is hiding, and your child must think their way around a space and think about how and where their friend might be hiding. This means that the child must think about where areas of concealment exist within a space, judge for themselves if this is a good hiding spot and then set about finding their friend.

Emotional Development

To encourage unstructured play also fosters a child’s emotional development by allowing them to communicate with their friends and engage in gamesmanship and possibly taste defeat – which allows them to foster (hopefully) reverence and humility in defeat and be magnanimous in victory. It allows them to gain a sense of independence in their action and thought and increases their ability to recognise a problem and perhaps be the voice of reason within a group.


Unstructured play also lets the kids loose, to some degree to allow them to experience things that test their resilience and resolve. If there are no adults to enforce certain rules, then the kids must create their own rules. Being a recipient of the consequences of breaking these rules, can – if the rules are healthy – which should be determined by an overseeing adult – foster a sense of resilience. This is particularly true if kids come up with a game in which each has a chance of tasting defeat. Sometimes, tough kids are made from those who taste defeat and take it gracefully.

Decision-Making Skills

One of the best things to come out of unstructured playtime is an increase in the capacity of the kids to make decisions for themselves about all sorts of things. If left (largely) to their own devices, children will be forced to make decisions about all sorts of things. Unstructured play helps kids decide on their own what are good decisions, and what are bad decisions, in a given set of contexts. They then tend to extrapolate these experiences into different contexts in their lives. Giving children the space to make decisions, for better or worse, at a young age can only lead to more well-rounded adult decision-makers in the future.

How is Unstructured Play Encouraged in Childcare?

Unstructured play is encouraged in a childcare setting by giving the children simplistic instructions without telling them how to perform a task, allowing them to work it out for themselves by creating a game-type environment, which usually features a goal, but no clearly outlined steps to achieve it. There are other methods of encouraging unstructured play in a childcare setting, these are outlined below.

Colouring and Drawing

The process of colouring and drawing for children engages their internal creativity. This type of unstructured play will allow them to explore their creativity as individuals and allow them to utilise their imaginations and association skills, as they choose the right colours for specific objects, for example.

Blocks & Lego

The use of blocks and Lego building allows the children to engage their creative side once again, as the great thing about Lego is that it can be used to build anything – this is why it is such a profoundly popular and good tool to allow children to be creative and to enjoy creative free play. Lego also encourages their brains to engage in recognition of specific objects and learn how to ‘build’ certain things. This enhances their memory for later in life as well.

Lego and blocks as part of unstructured play

Physical Outdoor Games

Physical outdoor play is perhaps at the heart of unstructured play and is a great way to encourage free play in a child-led environment. Outdoor physical games give children both the physical and mental space to engage in prime unstructured playtime. It allows their brains the ability to flow as freely as possible, whether they’re engaging with their peers or not. Unstructured play in an outdoor environment allows children the capability to be as unconstrained as possible.

Finding the Right Childcare For You

Finding the right type of childcare facility for your child is a real challenge. You want to ensure teachers of children encourage them to push their physical limits and at the same time, provide play experiences that create better students, within a safe space.

Finding the best centre involves you knowing your child’s personality and finding a facility that would play to their strengths, give resolve to their weaknesses, and allow them to develop as a person in the most optimal way possible that works for them.

Take your time with this, do your research, and maybe visit a daycare with your kid and see how it goes. You and your child will know what spaces and people work for them. Make sure you listen to your child in these moments, as they should be involved in the decision-making process as well.

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