Boosting child development with regular unstructured play

Unstructured play

The progressive, forward-thinking attitude of most Australians is of huge benefit to our kids. We’re one of the premier countries to have not only recognised the importance of play for healthy development but to also have many preschool learning environments that encourage unstructured, play-based early childhood education, such as Montessori and the Emilio Reggio approach.

But why is unstructured play – also called free play – so beneficial? And how can parents and caregivers easily incorporate this into everyday home life?

How free play benefits the development process

The definition of free play is the chance to explore the activities and interests a child wants without any guidelines or predetermined path (within a safe environment, of course). For example, a child might want to make paper shapes, discover a sand pit, bounce on a trampoline or kick around in a pile of crunchy leaves.

The key rule is that there are no rules… The child defines the direction of travel, with one discovery leading to another. In other words, they follow their own instincts and interests.

Regularly going freestyle has been proven to:

Supports physical development

Running, walking, balancing, using equipment and any type of movement helps children’s muscular development, coordination and fine motor skills.

Unstructured play supports creativity

Children discover the art of the possible as they experiment through play. This stimulates imagination and problem-solving techniques.

Supports mental and cognitive development

Important neural pathways are created as the child explores what interests them. They also develop important problem-solving skills as they overcome challenges.

Supports social skills

When playing with others, games and activities provide the ideal landscape for social interaction. Kids learn to share, overcome disagreements, make friends and positively interact with the world around them.

Removing the structure surrounding play sessions provides endless development opportunities, plus it’s great fun for the children. Playgrounds and outdoor spaces offer ideal locations for free play – and that includes your back garden.

Examples of unstructured play

Free play is suitable for both pre-schoolers and kids of early school age. It is great for school time and for having fun during the school holidays. The following are some examples that you might want to include in your children’s playtime.

Colouring, drawing and painting

Experimenting with different mediums and colours to create a masterpiece (or squiggle – it all counts) on a blank canvas stimulates imagination and creativity, as well as honing fine motor skills and coordination as they learn to handle crayons, pencils, a paintbrush etc…

Building stuff

Provide a bunch of items, such as cardboard boxes, building blocks, different materials, paper towel rolls (you get the idea) and let the kids do with them what they choose. They might build a tower. Perhaps they’ll rip them to shreds or trample them into the ground. It doesn’t matter. The key is that they’re free to utilise the items in any way they see fit. Watching little ones explore such everyday items is likely to leave you amazed at what they get up to.


The joy of bouncing appeals to all ages, but for young children it has an extra special draw. Learning to balance and move on an unsteady surface helps boost coordination, balance and build confidence. Today’s trampolines come with many safety features, such as nets and spring-free jumping mats, making for a secure environment ideally suited to free play.

Playground play

Either with equipment or without, alone or with friends, children are free to run to their heart’s content, make up games with friends, sit and sing silly songs… The key is that the children are unhindered by any ‘rules’ as to what they should or shouldn’t be doing.

Playing dress up

Again, this unstructured play can be enjoyed alone or with others. Kids can invent characters, pretend they’re someone (or something) else and act out any scenario they choose.

Sensory play

Engaging in activities that involve exploring textures, tastes, sounds, and smells, such as playing with water, sand, or play dough.

Conclusion: Boosting child development with regular unstructured play

While structured activities certainly have their place, the importance of unstructured playtime is a key element for healthy child development. Sadly, technological advances have meant that today’s kids have far too much screen time and not enough outdoor playtime.

As parents and guardians of the next generation, it’s our responsibility to provide our kids with the best possible development opportunities. Increasing their indoor and outdoor unstructured playtime is an easy way to do this. And there’s no better time to begin than today.

Further reading: How to find the best playgrounds near you.

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