Unstructured Play: Essential not Optional

How important is the role of self-directed play in childhood development?

Put simply: it's fundamental.

Free play, or unstructured play, is what takes place when children have access to a rich play environment (eg, the great outdoors) and freedom from interference (eg, screens or overly involved parents). It comes naturally to kids and involves imagination, creativity, and innovation.


As humans, we have powerful imaginations. It's what allows us to be empathic, it enables us to envision a future, and it's the thing that allows us to conceive of an alternate reality (not just the one immediately available to our senses).

Children live in imagination and it serves them well. Indeed, it is key to their healthy development. As with physical muscles, if it is underused, then it atrophies. Free play is the very thing that flexes children's imagination. Kids who are given plenty of playtime to exercise this mind-muscle experience psychological, emotional, and social benefits.


Imagination and creativity are linked. Creativity is the impulse to take the idea and do something with it. It is practical and involves taking internal thoughts and manifesting them in the external world in some way or another.

Whether it's playing a chase-game and creating new rules on the fly, making large-scale pieces of art with branches and leaves, or role-playing fantasy characters, we constantly see creativity running through unstructured play.

Again, the creative aspect of free play provides children with many advantages. For example, individually, it can provide a way to process difficult feelings, boost problem-solving skills, and enhance decision making. And in a group, it can expand children's ability to cooperate and compromise, encourage self-advocacy, and teach conflict resolution.


Play innovation involves a feedback loop. Kids devise a game, then run around playing it. Having tested it for a while, they imagine new rules or variations on the theme. Once again they give these a go. In this way, games constantly evolve; play never stays still but continually innovates.

Naturally embracing innovation, children who engage in free play develop an openness to change and a flexibility of thought.

To be imaginative, creative, and innovative, we must exercise these mental muscles. Children do this organically and effortlessly as they play. And all this while having fun at the same time!

43 Profound Benefits of Unstructured Play

There are many ways to view and define play but one universal characteristic is that it is fun; an end in itself. This should be enough for parents and policymakers. However, in a time when our culture and education system tends to view play as a non-essential, even frivolous, leisure activity, it can be important to underline the myriad of profound benefits that unstructured play brings our kids.

To the right is a visualisation of 43 evidence-based benefits of free play.

With so much positive evidence pointing to the power of play in children's lives, hopefully, there will be a paradigm shift, and play will be seen for what it is: an essential element of healthy childhood development every bit as important as good sleep and a healthy diet.

Meet Neve and Keane

Neve and Keane describe themselves as 'two unperfectionists looking for simplicity, meaning, and humor in parenting'. As ex-teachers and project managers, they get obssessed with researching and writing precisely. It's no wonder then, that they are the think tanks behind We The Parents, which features in-depth parenting guides to make your parenting journey a little easier.

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