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Unstructured Play Is Critical For Kids

Unstructured play is a category of play without predetermined guidelines. Unstructured play is often informally referred to as ‘just play’ or ‘letting kids be kids’. You may also hear it referred to as ‘free play’ or ‘self-play’. Research has proven that it is critically important for the physical and mental development of a child.

Unlike structured play, unstructured play is not instructor-led; teachers, parents and other adults do not interfere and set out instructions or directions. It is more spontaneous, often made-up on the spot and thoroughly enjoyed by kids. 

Children are generally engaged in open-ended play without any specific learning objective, allowing them the freedom to create, explore and discover without the barrier of predefined rules. There are no organized teams, no supervisors, no uniforms, no coaches or trainers. This, in the long run, has been shown to foster cognitive development while boosting physical development together with emotional and social development.

Child-led play and activities are often driven by kids, leading to play that is more creative and improvised rather than having a purpose. Unstructured play doesn't necessarily mean a child plays alone, they could also be playing in a group. Play partners in the form of siblings, peers, friends, teachers and even parents take part in unstructured play.

Four reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children

The well-known computer scientist Hod Lipson at Cornell confirmed that the gift of play teaches kids how to deal with the unexpected and unpredictable, and is considered to be a critically important skill in today's uncertain world. 

Unstructured play lets the child learn by randomly trying out a range of ideas and actions and then working out the consequences like a child banging their drums in many different ways to make music. The positive consequence is that children who play extensively are always better at generating new possibilities. In fact, it is the very ‘silliness’ of play that makes unstructured play so effective. 

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, an expert on the neuroscience of play, pointed out that unstructured play actually changes the anatomy of the developing brain in kids in many important ways. It strengthens the connections of the nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex - the portion of the brain considered to be the commanding control centre responsible for problem-solving, regulating emotions and making plans.

Give that unstructured play primarily involves trying out different strategies without specific goals, the brain gets to practice different activities during this time. Dr. Pellis’ studies on play-deprived rats and play-experienced rats proved that the latter were able to react better to any circumstances in a more flexible and swift manner because their brains seemed to have more plasticity and were better able to rewire when encountered with new experiences. 

Jaak Panksepp, a renowned professor at the University of Washington, carried out extensive research on the effect of play in rats. He found that even a half-hour of unstructured play could activate the outer area of the rats' brain, called the neocortex - the part of the brain involved in higher functions such as language interpretation, thinking and spatial reasoning. Similar brain behaviour in humans has not been researched yet, but some researchers believe it has the same effect.

2. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

Experts believed that animal play is nothing but the mere practice that makes animals more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study on the effect of play on rats led him to the conclusion that play served a totally different function. It taught young and growing animals how to interact with others in a positive manner. In other words, the play helped build a prosocial brain.

3. Children who play are often better students

Studies have proved that the social skills acquired through unstructured play help children become better students academically. Research has also found that early prosocial development in the child has a strong positive impact on their later academic achievements. Dr. Sergio Pellis noted that countries where the recess period is longer tend to have higher academic performances compared to countries where recess breaks are less.

4. Unstructured play gets kids moving

In today’s world, it is really quite worrying to see the young getting as little physical activity as they do, given the fact that they spend a large amount of their time glued to electronic devices. Unstructured play is great in this regard because it involves running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play-structures in public parks or in the school premises, making children move their whole body around. Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the risk of Type 2 diabetes, a common condition prevalent in North American children.

Why is Unstructured Play Fun? 

Motivating a child to play gives them a chance to explore widely, be silly, act randomly and do things for no reason at all. But to get the task done, you need to make exploration enjoyable, independent of any particular reward or outcomes. Children should not be told to play, thinking that eventually, it will give them robust cognitive functions. They should be allowed to play simply because the process is fun and enjoyable.

It might seem tempting in today's busy world for parents to fill every minute of their kid’s day with structured activities like French or Spanish classes, or soccer and basketball practice, or a full range of special camps or classes during the weekends. Parents don't remember to carve out time for kids to spend time among kids with absolutely nothing planned and with no particular goals in mind except for having fun.

As parents or teachers, we need to remember that unstructured play is just one of the many physical activities for children. It lets kids explore their imagination and the things they see around them. In a time when people deal with hectic daily schedules, it's good to remember and value the importance of unstructured play or free time for your kids. And although we all know that play helps children learn, another part of the evolutionary story is that play is satisfying in itself and a source of joy for children and parents alike.

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