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Seeking a Balance with Structured and Unstructured Play

Feb 29, 2024

Child hands putting together kitten puzzle

Play rules the world. Our kiddo’s world that is. Play is an essential component of your child’s development, which presents itself when simply observing your kiddo’s desire to play. Whether it is with friends or sitting under a tree coloring, play transforms the way your child interacts with their environment daily. Structured and unstructured play benefit your child in different ways, making it important to allow your kiddo to engage in both. Who doesn’t want to have fun?

Thriving in Structured Play

No matter the form that it takes, play enables children to learn with ease, develop critical thinking skills, and improve fine/gross motor skills (just to name a few benefits!). Structured play is goal-oriented and uses problem-solving skills in completing a task. Generally adult lead, structured play can encompass sports, following instructions to build something, or playing a board game. Structured play always involves a set of rules that are meant to be followed.

As parents, extracurricular activities often count as structured play. Kids tend to thrive in consistent, structured environments, so this type of play is crucial to build into the day. Be wary of overscheduling. When kids have too many tasks on their plate, it can lead to the inability to manage stress and interfere with tasks that are just as detrimental. For some kids, even one extracurricular activity can be too much on top of daily demands.

Make sure you know your child. If you know they take much longer to do homework than other kids, it may be helpful to not enlist them in a sport that asks for their time and energy every day. Another way to prevent overscheduling is to create realistic schedules. Understand that your child needs time for receiving enough sleep, enjoying mealtime with the family, and even unstructured play.

Incorporating Unstructured Play

Unstructured play is known as “free time” or play without rules. When a child has the autonomy to choose what they would like to do, it gives them an opportunity to explore and identify their interests in life. What brings the most joy? Creativity and curiosity are strengthened. Unstructured play can also help a child develop self-expression and identify emotions.

Coloring, playing with blocks, and creating imaginative games are all considered unstructured, which can be social or completed by themselves. Since unstructured play is positive for development and learning, making room for it should be a priority just like structured play.

What Doesn’t Count

Screen time is a tough shell to crack because technology has become such an integral part of an adult’s life at work or even at play. The issue with kids and screen time is that they miss out on essential benefits that structured and unstructured play have to offer such as improving social skills and encouraging creativity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time and setting rules for school-aged children. If it means less time for active play, we would suggest hitting the streets instead of the screens.

No matter the app, game, or educational basis of screen time, it cannot serve as an adequate replacement for human interaction and real-life activities. Even though screen time is often a must, set rules around its usage, keep screens out of play areas, and encourage active play. Going outside with your kids counts as a way to encourage. Now get out there and play your heart out!

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It always seems like play around here, but we’re also helping your child improve their daily living. Reach out to our Occupational Therapy team today.