Unstructured Play: 13 Pros & Cons for Learning

unstructured play examples and definition, explained below

The benefits of unstructured play are increasingly being recognized early childhood education. It seems like every school now has a play based curriculum. 

There is plenty of research pointing to benefits of play for learning. This has led educators to move away from academic based learning for children in the early years.

So, what are the pros and cons of unstructured play at preschool? I’ll outline all the research on children learning through play in this article!

Read Also: A List of 107 Effective Classroom Teaching Strategies

What is the Definition of Unstructured Play in Education?

Unstructured play might also be called:

  • Free play;
  • Unguided play;
  • Spontaneous play;
  • Adventure play

Scholars define unstructured play in the following ways:

  1. Izumi-Taylor, Samuelsson and Rogers (2010, p. 3) state that unstructured play involves “…children initiating play and having many choices as well as a long play period.”
  2. Carr (2009, p. 768) explains that unstructured play is “associated with the absence of external constraints and the exercising of personal freedom.”
  3. Herrington and Brussoni (2016, p. 1) state that unstructured play “is not planned or led by adults, but is spontaneous and directed by the children themselves.”
  4. Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2013, p. 105) argue that free play contains “the following qualities: the activities are fun, voluntary, flexible, involve active engagement, have no extrinsic goals, involve active engagement of the child, and often have an element of make-believe”

A Quick Note for University Students

In your assessments, ensure your definitions of unstructured play cite quality scholarly sources.

I also recommend you gather together the key elements of each definition above and paraphrase them in your own definition. Then, cite all the scholars together.

Below is an example of me paraphrasing the above definitions in the way you should do it in an essay. Note how I cite all the authors at the end of the sentence.

“Unstructured play should be seen as sitting in direct contrast to structured play. While structured play involves teacher scaffolding and intervention, unstructured play emphasizes spontaneity, student choice, freedom and non-inteventionism on behalf of the parent or educator (Brussoni, 2016; Carr, 2009; Izumi-Taylor, Samuelsson and Rogers, 2010).”

List of Pros and Cons

Pros of Unstructured PlayCons of Unstructured Play
1. Encourages creativity1. May not lead to learning
2. Encourages democratic thinking2. Is not always the best approach
3. Encourages communication skills3. Children still need guidance
4. Builds resilience4. Parents may not agree with it
5. Encourages self-regulation5. Could be unsafe in some instances
6. Helps children let off steam6. Could lead to social bullying & exclusion

Benefits of Unstructured Play for Children

Below are the top benefits of play based learning:

1. It Encourages Creativity

In unstructured play environments, children need to make their own decisions on how to make use of their surrounds.

This forces children to use their own creativity skills to come up with ways to use an manipulate their surroundings.

Jean Piaget, the most influential child development theorist in history, spoke of children being “lone scientists.”

By this, Piaget meant that when children are out interacting with their environments they are discovering, experimenting and exploring.

Without any set rules, children are given a blank slate. Unstructured play is a choose your own adventure: children can choose to use a hammer for its purpose (to hit nails into wood) or for any other purpose they creatively put their mind to:

  • To squash bugs;
  • To dig holes;
  • To write their name in the soil

Or … any other way they see fit!

If a teacher or parent was there instructing the child on how to use a hammer, their opportunities for discovery and exploration are dramatically limited.

Keep an open mind – heck, think like a kid! – and you’ll see that unstructured free play does wonders for helping grow children’s creative sites.

2. It Encourages Democratic Thinking

A playground without rules can be a nightmare!

But beneath all the chaos, children are actually learning something very important: democracy.

Stand back and observe. Sure, sometimes it goes off the rails and causes fighting, hitting and screaming.

But dig deeper. Have you ever seen children agreeably negotiating roles in a game? Have you ever looked on with pride at children taking turns, ensuring equality or calling out bad behaviour?

Unstructured play environments are great spaces for children to practice the skills we constantly try to reinforce at home and in the classroom.

Here’s some democratic skills you might observe in an unstructured play environment:

  • Negotiation;
  • Turn Taking;
  • Creating Group Rules;
  • Reflecting on Justice and Equality;
  • Inclusion;
  • Tolerance of Difference;
  • Conflict Resolution

The great thing about free play is that this is the time and place where those skills are reinforced without adults providing permission or scaffolding. It’s the moment when all our encouragement and hard work really comes home to roost.

3. It Encourages Communication Skills

Lev Vygotsky taught us that we learn and develop primarily through language. It is through talking things through that we develop a shared cultural understanding.

Unstructured play environments can be rich in language use.

Place groups of children in an unstructured play environment and the first thing you’ll notice is that most children will gravitate towards playing together.

During these group play situations, children will be spending their time talking things out. They will explain to their friends how they’re playing, what they’re playing with and what ideas they have for their play scenarios.

By talking things through, children will begin to see each other’s perspectives. They will also learn to observe and mimic how other children their age talk and the vocabulary they use.

By communicating in unstructured spaces, children begin to develop shared understandings, which progresses all students’ cognitive and social development.

4. It Builds Resilience

Maria Montessori is a strong advocate of non-interventionist teaching because it builds resilience.

For Montessori, the best thing to do is to let a child figure things out for themselves. Children learn through adversity.

Here’s a few emotions children may feel when playing in unstructured environments:

  • Confusion
  • Frustration
  • Uncertainty
  • Failure

It is in these moments where resilience is built. Rather than intervening and showing a child solutions, let them figure the solutions out themselves. Give the child space to learn and experiment.

When a child manages to navigate their way out of tough or uncomfortable situations they will develop an important self-concept of themselves as:

  • Competent
  • Capable
  • Resilient

These skills are some of the most important skills we can encourage for the children in our care.

Now, of course, there are limitations to how much frustration and uncertainty a child can go through before we intervene! I will discuss the disadvantages of unstructured play later in this piece.

5. It Encourages Self-Regulation

The concept of the ‘helicopter parent’ is one I’m sure you’ve heard of. It’s a term used to describe a parent who hovers over their child, refusing to give them space. This has plenty of negative effects.

Children need space to (relatively safely) fail.

A grazed knee will cause a few tears, but it won’t kill anyone.

What’s this got to do with self-regulation?

When children are exposed to potential dangers, they learn to be more aware of themselves and their environment.

Give a child a chance to be in a risky situation and see what happens. You might be surprised how well children can identify and manage risk.

If we adults carry too much of the risk analysis burden for a child, then the child will never learn the important art of risk management and mitigation.

In other words, children need to be exposed to reasonable risks to achieve reasonable self-regulation strategies.

Related: 9+ Benefits of Risk Taking in Early Childhood

6. It Helps Children Let off Steam

Any teacher would tell you that the more you box a student up in a silent, structured classroom environment, the more children build up a head of steam.

You just can’t expect a young child to sit still and follow strict rules all day long. Children just don’t have the required attention span (heck, as an adult, I don’t!)

The most common form of unstructured play seen in schools is recess and lunch breaks.

These forms of unstructured play allow students to refresh themselves, let out built-up energy, and eventually return to structured tasks with a fresh mind.

Here’s how Burriss and Burriss (2011, p. 2) say it in a scholarly journal article:

“The time spent in quality recess allows children to recover from the school schedule in an unstructured way that allows them to continue traditional indoor classroom lessons with renewed attention. […] distributing children’s efforts between structured and unstructured tasks proves beneficial.”

Disadvantages of Unstructured Play for Children

There are plenty of arguments against unstructured play for learners. So, here are the main limitations of unstructured play:

7. It may not Lead to Learning

Have you ever had a child who was perfectly content playing the exact same game day in, day out?

If children simply repeat the same play activity over and again, the benefits will diminish.

Children should always be engaging in situations that throw up new challenges. This is a strong argument for teachers’ interventions in children’s play.

There are many ways around this. Primarily, children’s play environments should be rich with stimuli but also widely varied.

Consider taking children to new play locations outside of their comfort zone so that they may find new challenges.

Similarly, if you identify toys or games children gravitate to when they are allowed to engage in free play, consider subtly removing those toys from the environment to encourage children to use their creativity to come up with new activities.

Lastly, you could consider mixing-up a child’s playmates. New playmates will add a new variable to the learning environment which will prove educational for all.

8. It may not be best for Child Development

Children ‘develop’ by being exposed to progressively more difficult concepts.

You may know the concept of ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. This concept reinforces the idea that children should be exposed to tasks that are challenging for a child.

The tasks can’t be too easy, but also can’t be too hard.

If you get the difficulty level of a task just right, the child’s learning will be sped up.

In other words, psychologists like Vygotsky believe we can actually speed up a child’s development through our interventions.

Unfortunately the optimal environment for hitting the perfect ZPD for a child doesn’t just automatically happen.

You have to intervene in the environment and help the child learn.

We call these interventions ‘scaffolding’. This term was invented by a theorist named Bruner.

Some of the most common scaffolding techniques include:

  • Modelling;
  • Questioning;
  • Breaking a task down into bite-sized chunks;
  • Prompting; and
  • Many more strategies…

Such theorists would imply that your active intervention in children’s play may help speed up their development and ensure no time is wasted.

Related: Sociocultural Theory of Education (Ultimate Guide)

9. ‘Guided Play’ might be More Appropriate

Many socio-cultural theorists also argue that educators should engage in ‘guided play’. Through guided play, educators set goals for learning and carefully set up the learning environment.

In guided play teachers may ensure children focus on certain toys or games. However, within the set confines, they encourage children to direct the flow of the activity.

Here’s how Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2013, p. 105) explain it:

“Guided play lies midway between direct instruction and free play, presenting a learning goal, and scaffolding the environment while allowing children to maintain a large degree of control over their learning.”

If scholars like Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2013) are to be believed, there is a significant payoff for striking this delectate balance between structured and unstructured play.

Related: Scaffolding Learning using the I Do, We Do, You Do Method

10. Unstructured Play may be Unfair

I spoke earlier about the role of unstructured play for encouraging democratic citizenship between children.

However, anyone who has been around a child for 5 minutes knows children can be very narcissistic. They just haven’t yet developed the capacity to see things from others’ perspectives.

This isn’t the child’s fault – they need time to learn and make mistakes.

Nonetheless, children can be mean to one another.

I was a bit of a loser when I was a kid. I didn’t have many friends, and the recess and lunch breaks at school were not good to me. I was always unsure who to hang out with and whether I’d be accepted.

If there aren’t rules or adults governing how things happen, kids like me can become ostracised very fast.

In my classrooms I build up to unstructured play. I teach and model fairness, group work and inclusion from day one. I need to know that the children in my care are going to treat one another kindly, and it can take a lot of intervention from me to achieve this goal.

11. It can be Unsafe

In our modern world, we suffer badly from anxiety about our children.

I feel like I’m always three steps away from either the children in my care getting hurt or, maybe more likely, parents judging me for creating an unsafe learning environment for their children.

This is compounded by the endless institutional rules around safety.

In our hyper-anxious societies, ‘play anxiety’ is a real issue.

I ask my university students all the time whether they’d let their own kids play alone on the street, play with toys with sharp edges, and so on.

Regularly, my students retort that No, they’d NEVER let their children play in environment that would have been considered perfectly safe not 30 years ago.

Unstructured play leads to many fears of lack of safety. Telling a child to ‘go out there and explore!’ can lead to some situations you just didn’t expect.

Expect a kid to come back to you holding a rusted piece of metal at some stage during free outdoor play.

Whether this is a risk you’re willing to take has a lot to do with your environment, your school’s rules, children’s parents and your own tolerance for risk.

But don’t forget, risk taking can be good for children, too!

12. It may not be Ideal for Language Development

Remember earlier when I said unstructured play is good for language development?

It’s true. But only to an extent.

The fact of the matter is that there needs to be a “more knowledgeable other” (That’s Vygotsky’s term) to model language and vocabulary in order for children’s language skills to develop.

In other words, children will learn language skills from one another. Of course!

But there comes a time when there needs to be an adult there to offer harder and harder learning opportunities.

If an unstructured play environment does not provide reasonable challenges and extensions to children’s learning, then it will not be effective.

13. Parents may Disagree with Unstructured Play

This is not a pedagogical limitation. However, it is an important challenge that we face when trying to encourage children to play in unstructured environments. For example, Carr (2009, p. 768) says:

“One of the most problematic features of children’s unstructured play is that to the outsider, especially the adult outsider, it can appear to be little more than wasting time.”

You may come across this problem a lot in your educational setting. In these situations, it is important to emphasize the value of unstructured play for children’s development.

I have already outlined what those benefits are.

Some strategies you may like to employ to get parents on your side in situations like this include:

  • Communicating Pedagogical Value. Sending home annotated photos of children engaging in unstructured play. In your annotations, explain what physical, social and cognitive skills the children are employing. For example, you can highlight the fine and gross motor skills employed, the fact that the children are negotiating roles in their games, and how they are learning about the objects in their play environment;
  • Listening to parents to understand their concerns. Sometimes if you introduce certain toys and tools into the play environment that were suggested by parents, you’ll win them over.

14. School Leadership may Disagree with Unstructured Play

Your boss may also disagree with unstructured play.

I find this happens a lot with my students who work in early learning settings. Their bosses often insist they muck in and play with the students.

Often, this is the boss’s anxiety about their staff appearing idle.

To allay this issue, consider ways you can work around the edges to support unstructured play like taking notes on the developmental skills the students have learned during the play time to show your boss you’re not just sitting around doing nothing.

Learn More about Types of Play Based Learning:

A Summary of the Advantages and Disadvantages of Unstructured Play

This post really has shown how much conjecture and disagreement there is around the true value of unstructured play. However, unstructured play is still widely understood by the experts to be very good for children’s learning as part of a mix of a range of positive structured, guided and unstructured learning scenarios.

Here’s a summary of the benefits and limitations of unstructured play:

Benefits of Unstructured Play

  1. It Encourages Creativity
  2. It Encourages Democratic Thinking
  3. It Encourages Communication Skills
  4. It Builds Resilience
  5. It Encourages Self-Regulation
  6. It Helps Children Release Steam

Limitations of Unstructured Play

  1. It may not Lead to Learning
  2. It may not be best for Child Development
  3. ‘Guided Play’ might be More Appropriate
  4. It may be Unfair
  5. It can be Unsafe
  6. It may not be Ideal for Language Development
  7. Parents may Disagree with Unstructured Play
  8. Your Boss or School Leadership may Disagree with Unstructured Play
pros and cons of unstructured play

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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