Importance of Unstructured Play to Children’s Development

Children playing London Bridge Is Falling Down outdoors

Discover how you can encourage unstructured play at your service. 

Children need to play. It’s essential to their physical, mental and cognitive development. Exploring their environment, engaging with other children and discovering new things enhances a child’s creativity, imagination and confidence.  

There are two kinds of child’s play—structured and unstructured. The terms structured and unstructured playtime may seem self-explanatory, but they have many differences. This article will help you understand how these play types differ and how beneficial they are to a child’s growth, learning and development.  

Structured vs unstructured play 

Structured play is a specific type of play organised for children to enhance their physical skills or train their cognitive abilities. These activities are carefully thought out, goal oriented and, most of the time, led by teachers in childcare services.  

The goal of structured playtime is to introduce children to new things in a controlled environment and fashion. A child who engages in structured play is driven towards proficiency in reading, learning, listening, focussing, paying attention or following basic instructions. Structured play also facilitates interaction with other children and teachers, which develops their social skills. 

On the other hand, as the term suggests, unstructured playtime is a different approach. While its objective may be similar to structured play, adults are hands-off and do not provide guidelines, so children can freely explore and create their own rules without limits.  

Children running and playing with bubbles, a good example of unstructured play

How unstructured play contributes to a child’s development 

Unstructured play is also known as free play. Parents and teachers are encouraged to let children experience unstructured play. It gives young learners a sense of freedom and the ability to explore the world around them while creating and doing things by trial and error, which later helps them develop skills useful for when they’re adults.  

During free play, parents, teachers and other adults are not supposed to intervene in a child’s activity. However, they still need to watch over the children and keep their environment safe. Adults can also provide children with basic toys or art materials. 

This unstructured yet supervised play time encourages a child’s sense of independence and allows them to explore and learn by themselves. Having the freedom to do things on their own encourages children and their friends to create games using their imaginations without any rigid or overbearing adult structure. Research suggests that unstructured play supports cognitive, physical, psychological and social development. During unstructured playtime, children’s capabilities and aptitudes for specific things may also emerge.  

Unstructured play in a childcare setting 

It is helpful for a child’s development to engage in unstructured play in a structured environment, like day care. In a childcare setting, unstructured play can take many forms. Whether entirely unstructured or partially structured, teachers must allow children to make their own decisions. Here are some of the important benefits of unstructured play for children: 

Social development 

In a childcare setting, unstructured play allows children to interact freely with one another, which leads to them rapidly developing their social skills. When young learners are involved in unstructured interplay, they develop their social skills quickly. They also learn teamwork, communication, group problem solving and many other essential skills for social development. 

Little gleeful young girl with paint covering her hands face

Problem solving 

Child-led play improves their problem-solving skills. When they find a challenging situation, they’re compelled to think of ways to solve it. Hide-and-seek is an excellent way to build a child’s problem-solving skillset. While their playmates are hiding, the child thinks their way around the space and figures out where their friends might be hiding by considering all the possible spots to hide in or behind as they try to find their friend. 

Emotional development 

Encouraging unstructured play also fosters a child’s emotional development. When children play, they’ll inevitably experience defeat, which allows them to understand reverence and humility in defeat and be kind in victory. This helps them prepare to become well-adjusted adults who will take accountability, recognise a problem and be the voice of reason in a group. 

Creative development 

Unstructured play gives children a safe space to think freely and use their creativity to overcome challenges they are faced with. Without adult supervision and pre-determined rules during playtime, a child has the opportunity to let their imagination run free. They make their own games, create their own rules, and learn how to solve problems creatively by themselves. This boosts their creativity and confidence. 

Young girl standing in front of a desk with art and colouring materials


Unstructured play allows children to experience things that challenge their resilience. In the absence of adults to enforce rules, children make their own. Having to deal with the consequences of breaking these rules can help develop resilience, especially if children devise a game in which they can all experience defeat. The strongest children are often the ones who taste defeat gracefully and take it in stride. 

Decision-making skills 

If left to their own devices, children learn to make decisions for themselves, which is one of the most useful skills they can possess as adults. They experience the consequences of their actions and develop an understanding of whether decisions are good or bad. In the long run, these experiences can influence different contexts in the lives of children. Providing children with the opportunity to make decisions at a young age also helps them become well-rounded decision-makers in the future. 

Practising unstructured play in childcare 

One way a childcare facility can encourage unstructured play is by giving children simple instructions without explaining how to accomplish a task. This allows children to figure things out on their own by creating a game-like environment in which there’s a goal but no clear pathway to achieving it. Other methods of encouraging unstructured play in a childcare setting are outlined below. 

Colouring and drawing 

When children colour and draw, they engage their internal creativity. As they choose the right colours for specific objects, they explore their creativity as individuals using their imagination and association skills. 

Child wearing a safety helmet while playing tools

Blocks and lego 

With blocks and Lego building, children can exercise their creative skills once again. Lego has become such an extremely popular, useful tool for children to use for creative free play because it can be used to build anything. Lego and block building can stimulate children’s brains as they learn to recognise specific objects and how to ‘build’ things. 

Physical outdoor games 

Outdoor physical play is at the heart of unstructured play and is a wonderful way to encourage child-led play. Outdoor physical games allow children to engage in prime unstructured playtime, which is physically and mentally beneficial. Whether interacting with peers or not, unstructured outdoor play enables children’s brains to flow freely.  

With Playground, our platform for teachers, you can quickly update teaching plans and learning stories to share with parents, stored in the cloud as documentation for your next assessment.


Image Icon

Patricia Podolig Donaldson

Marketing Content Specialist

Marketing and communications professional with over eight years of experience, writing about Xplor Childcare & Education’s comprehensive suite of products since 2021.

Close modal icon
Image of YU

Fill in the form to get started with Discover by Xplor.