“Mommy, will you play with me?” This may be the simplest, yet most difficult question we get asked throughout our day. The answer is not so simple. Yes, we want to play… but…

We have work to do.

We have dishes piled in the sink.

We have a phone call to make.

We have laundry that needs to be switched over.

We need to do something for the baby.

unstructured play with your childOften our children get told “in a minute” but that minute may never come. Or, we do sit down and play, only to get interrupted by a text message, something that we just remembered needs our attention before we forget, or even, the draw of social media steals our attention.

We are all guilty of it at some point or another. It is hard to stay engaged in our busy, distracted lives. But the importance of playing with our children cannot be stressed enough. Now some of us are really great with planned activities — things like crafts, games, STEM activities, reading together, and fun things we find on Pinterest. All of that is great, they are wonderful ways to engage with your child. They build the relationship with you, they teach valuable skills, and they validate that they are loved. Today though, I am going to stress the importance of another kind of play: unstructured play.

What is unstructured play? Unstructured play is a time when a child engages in open-ended, imaginary play. There is no learning objective or specific rules that must be adhered to. During unstructured play the child takes the lead and uses a sense of freedom to play. Unstructured play can happen during solo play, peer play, or play with a parent.

Many parents find unstructured play to be difficult to engage in. Why? Because it means that we have to let go. It requires us to use our imagination, to be creative, to abide to no rules, to follow the lead of the child, and for some of us, that is really hard. Especially if you did not get to have much unstructured play as a child or if you struggle to let go of control and wanting things to be sensible. Unstructured play can be completely insensible and following the lead of a child can be challenging, especially if you wouldn’t do it that way. Many parents also struggle with not asking “why” something is happening a certain way. Why is the zebra the baby to the gorilla and koala? Why is everyone being mean to this doll? Etc.

While it can be challenging for parents to engage in, here is why participating in unstructured play with your child is so important.

  1. Unstructured play encourages creativity and imagination. Anything is possible when there are no rules or boundaries. The child is free to create and imagine a whole world of endless possibilities.
  2. Children learn through play. This is how they work out problems, practice important social skills, and process emotions.
  3. Unstructured play enhances cognitive understanding. When a child is able to work through problems or play out scenarios without imposed consequences, it not only helps them work through it and creates meaning, it boosts cognitive understanding and problem-solving abilities.
  4. Unstructured play increases confidence. When children are able to think and create, using their own cognition and creativity it increases their confidence in themselves.
  5. Attachment and bonding with your child are enhanced when you join in unstructured play with them. Unstructured play with your child, allowing them to take the lead, allows them to feel important, in control, trusting, and loved.

Engaging in unstructured play in any many is important. In fact, children should experience twice as much unstructured play as compared to structured play. While a child benefits from independent or peer based unstructured play, it is also important that we as parents are taking the time to engage in unstructured play with our children each day.