December 5, 2023

Guest Post: Andy Earle

If you are new to the concept of unstructured play, this article can prove to be a valuable resource in increasing your child’s cognitive and physical abilities. First, unstructured play is essentially just playing without strict rules and guidelines. The point of unstructured play or free play is for your child to have fun creating their own goals and relishing in the act itself, rather than focusing on completing one specific task. Here’s another look at unstructured play, along with some of its potential benefits.

Structured vs. unstructured play

Most of the games and activities we usually think of fall into the category of structured play. Board games, organized sports and games like hide-and-seek, tag, and Simon says they all follow specific rules and aim for one goal that allows one to win. In unstructured play, there is no single objective or rules that govern what is and is not allowed. Playing make-believe, climbing trees, and running around outside are examples of unstructured play.

If you have trouble distinguishing between the two, think of your child using a model airplane kit. If they progress each direction step by step, they are engaging in structured play. They follow instructions to a specific goal. However, if they ignore the rules and use the pieces to create something else, they are engaging in unstructured play. Unstructured play, as shown in this example, involves more creative and problem-solving skills than regular rule-based play.

Unstructured play: Positive

Here’s a closer look at the benefits of unstructured play. Unstructured play often takes place outside, giving your child the opportunity to interact with nature and the outside world in new and beneficial ways. Activities like running, climbing, and doing different exercises like flips and somersaults strengthen your child’s muscles and may even use energy more efficiently than some organized sports like baseball and softball. In addition to developing muscles and physical coordination, unstructured outdoor play will encourage your child’s curiosity. They begin to look at the world around them in new and dynamic ways and push themselves to find new ways to answer the questions and overcome the obstacles they create. Without rules, they will be more intrinsically motivated in the game and will more easily accept the lessons they learn.

Mental development

If your child engages in free play often, then they are probably developing some seriously important cognitive skills. Without rules telling them how to think and what to do, your child will be forced to look at problems from new perspectives. They will also have the opportunity to be more creative in how they approach challenges, learn to think outside the box and take risks.

Your child will also learn to be more flexible in their thinking. Learning to rely only on rules and expectations can leave your child unprepared for life’s more unexpected moments. Unstructured play encourages improvisational thinking and the ability to adapt to new circumstances, both crucial things your child needs to learn early as they can influence adolescent development.


The biggest advantage of unstructured play is the sense of freedom it develops in your child. Constantly following rules, commands and restrictions is not a good way for your child to develop a personality that they value and are proud of. In fact, this constant scrutiny can even lead to serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety if left untreated. The freedom to create that comes with free play will help your child discover their passions and strengths as well as give them the space to showcase them.

In conclusion, unstructured play is an invaluable resource for your child to explore and develop a range of skills, passions and strengths. It not only provides a constructive outlet for your child’s energy, but actively develops the vital qualities of a healthy child – both physically and mentally.

I strongly encourage you to let your child engage in unstructured play as often as possible to raise a child full of creativity, direction and curiosity.

Author Bio: Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-adolescent communication and adolescent risk behavior. He is the co-founder of, a ghostwriter at, and the host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.

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