Unstructured Play

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“The overscheduling and overmonitoring of kids keep them off the street–but by depriving kids of opportunities to discover themselves, they also keep them from eventually having their own shot at happiness.” –Hara Estroff Marano

We took a family vacation several years ago to one of my favorite places on earth, Bald Head Island, NC. Beforehand, I carefully selected my “beach read” for balmy afternoons on the shady front porch. What caught my eye was a book by Hara Estroff Marano, the former chief editor for Psychology Today. The book was entitled A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. The front cover showed a little blonde-haired boy, wrapped head to toe in caution tape.

At the time I was still employed at an elementary school, and was noticing a disturbing trend among my students. If you put them in an organized sports situation like lacrosse or football, they were well versed in how to behave. However, if given “free time,” even for a few minutes, they couldn’t make the transition. In physical education class, for example, occasionally we would save a few minutes at the end to allow them to enjoy being outdoors without a designated activity. Inevitably, many would stand around idly, and a few would check in with the teachers to say “what do we do?”

As much as I have valued and enjoyed organized youth sports throughout my life, as a player, a parent, a teacher/coach, and an administrator, I understand that you give up something in order to participate. What you give up is unstructured play time. It is critically important to experience free play when small children are growing up. According to Marano, to omit this play is to inhibit important brain functions from developing. But I also believe it creates balance throughout one’s life to have time to just play.

What kind of play, you ask? This is a dangerous world where we are ever vigilant to risks. How can we allow our children to play without adult supervision? What about toxic environments, child abduction, bullying, etc? Agreed. All of these are possibilities of which parents must be aware.

Gone are the days when, like my husband’s mom, a parent would say, “Be back in time for supper,” and he and his friends headed off on their bikes for the day. Gone, too, are the activities like floating sticks from the neighbor’s creek all the way to the river. However, there are ways to allow your child to play safely without you or some other adult structuring the activity. Do it often so that children can discover for themselves.

My favorite movie is “Out of Africa,” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. There is a scene where Denys (Redford) has loaned his compass to Karen (Streep) for her use on a journey toward the Kenyan border. After her successful return, she attempts to give the compass back, but Denys says, “Keep it. You’ve earned it. Besides I don’t always want to know where I’m going.” Just imagine. Within the parameters of that philosophy, what discovery, what freedom might there be?

Living at the fast pace of the 21st century presents a challenge for parents. Be intentional about unstructured time for your children to just play. Let it become a frequent escape from the pressures of a packed schedule. Just as youth sports provide great rewards that endure, so does free play. Finding the right rhythm and balance will require well-placed priorities.

Key Tips

  • Make room in your calendar for unstructured play time.
  • Recognize the value of both organized sports and unstructured play and seek a balance.
  • Discovery, independence, as well as other necessary healthy functions are the benefits of unstructured play.


3 thoughts on “Unstructured Play”

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