Children love to imagine and experiment which is developed through unstructured play. It’s important for parents to learn how to encourage this creativity, as it leads to a variety of cognitive advantages.
What is unstructured play?
Unstructured play is when your child leads playtime, as opposed to following a set of rules. They are allowed to make up their own rules, problem solve situations, and get creative.
In unstructured play, your child will use their imagination to reimagine common items in fun ways. The benefits of this experience are endless. Learning how to create, imagine, and problem solve are just a few of the ways that unstructured play will teach your child.
Children in today’s society have it very different than when their parents grew up. With instant gratification that technology has provided us, our children are almost never allowed to be “bored.” There is always a tv show to watch or a game to play for them to engulf their senses in.
The magic happens when a child is left to be bored. That’s when they get to use their creative juices and imagination to develop fun activities to keep them occupied. Unstructured play puts their brains to good use when coming up with new ways to use items or make up games.
Ways to promote unstructured play
Your child could be at a disadvantage if they don’t get the chance to experience regular free play because they lack opportunities to feel in-control. We have a few tips that can help your child engage with more unstructured play time.
Take Them Outdoors
Playing in nature is a great way for your child to experience more unstructured play. Having big open spaces, being around water and sand, or having sticks and stones to play with, all encourage free play.
Your child might be more inclined to run around and get exercise, while being inspired to come up with their own games. The important factor to remember is not to make rules.
This way, when they come across rocks or sand, they can be creative with their interaction. They will also come to appreciate nature more and might be motivated to go outside and find more ways to play more often.
Going to parks with play structures and playgrounds is great too. Without instructions, your child might develop new ways to play, such as imagining that the structure is a castle and they need to defeat the dragon.
Surround Them with Creative Toys
Finding the right toys is instrumental to encouraging unstructured play. We suggest providing your child with Mega blocks, Lego’s, cardboard boxes, art supplies, buckets of sand, buttons, and fabrics.
Some of these might not sound like toys at first, but that’s because as adults, we tend to see objects as having a specific purpose. Children have an easier time imagining alternate uses because they haven’t become aware of their purpose in life yet. This significantly helps with brain development.
Pretend play items such as kitchens, cleaning tools, dolls, etc. also allow your child to to imitate actions they see and create new ways to use the items. If you also provide your child with a model, such as a picture to copy, or instructions for a Lego set, it doesn’t really count as unstructured play.
When your child encounters these objects and must come up with their own way to interact with them without instruction, they form more neurological connections. These connections are developed by experiencing problem solving and decision making scenarios, which helps their brains develop even as teenagers.
Let Them Take Control
A common thread in our advice has to do with letting your child lead the activity. It can be harmful if your child is used to following set rules 100% of the time because they don’t get the chance to think outside of the box and practice being in-control.
Studies show that when kids aren’t in control of their own play, it can lead to anxiety and depression down the road. Our advice is to follow your child and take note of what they like and dislike to play with as they uncover their personality.
By letting them take control of playtime, you can discover their interests and surround them with more stimulating toys, places, or scenarios. The more your child can express the freedom to play, the more motivated they will be to learn.
This will allow them to gain ‘expertise’ with a certain toy or game by interacting with it in increasingly creative ways, which is healthy for brain development.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun!
The big trick that we recommend is to put them in situations where they can interact with the same natural features or toys in many ways, without having outside instruction. You’ll be amazed at what your kids can come up with.
We hope these tips can help your child experience more unstructured play time and develop more ways to create their own fun, while helping their brains grow.
Related Post: 64 Simple, No-Prep Activities to Entertain Your Toddler
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.