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Is Unstructured or Structured Play Better for Child Development?

Even if you’ve never heard the terms ‘structured play’ or ‘unstructured play’, you will be very familiar with the concepts. Every game and activity our kids partake in can be placed into one of the two categories, each of which offers something different in terms of learning and child development. The question is, should you be encouraging your kids to sway more towards structured play, or unstructured play? Is one ‘better’ for them in the long term?

For the Surf excel Kids Today project, we worked closely with kids and experts in child development all over the world to get a clear idea of what modern childhood is like. One of the things that emerged from our research was that wherever they live, both kids and mums feel strongly about how important creative play time can be.


What is Structured Play?

Structured play is games and activities that are designed to have a specific outcome, where there is very little, if any, room for creative involvement. Structured play will always have a very definite outcome, although there may be a number of different ways to reach the same conclusion. Because they have a set goal, games and activities such as shape sorting, board games, or dance classes are all considered to be structured.  

What is Unstructured Play?

Unstructured play for children is the opposite of structured play. It’s not about playing with purpose, hoping to reach a specific goal at the end – it’s about leaving the outcome open to interpretation, and encouraging children to use their own imagination and creativity to create the conclusion on their choice. Writing short stories or poems, painting and drawing, and role play are all examples of unstructured, creative play for children.  

Is Unstructured or Structured Play Better?

It’s important to remember that both structured and unstructured activities are necessary for our children to develop happily and healthily. The Indian Health Service recommends that toddlers engage in around 30 minutes of structured activity, and 60 minutes of unstructured activity every day, increasing to an hour each for children from three years upwards. The reason it’s important to combine both types of play is that each method encourages a different kind of development. Structured activities can boost educational learning and increase self-confidence, while unstructured creative play activities help children to develop logical thinking, and promote creativity and initiative. 

Educational and Creative Play Activities for Children

There are plenty of after school and weekend activities to enjoy with your kids, ranging from free unstructured play to more routine-based activities. If you’re having trouble differentiating one type of activity from the other, here are some examples to get you on the right track:

  • Jigsaws – Structured

Jigsaw puzzles are considered to be a structured activity because there can only be one correct outcome – all the jigsaw pieces slotted together into the right place to create a picture. That is the overall aim, but the way in which we get to that set outcome varies depending on which pieces are laid down first. Jigsaws help children build associations between objects, and learn more about cause and effect.

  • Building Blocks – Unstructured

Building blocks, when used without specific instructions, are considered an unstructured activity. With a finite set of blocks, the possibilities are endless – there is literally no limit as to what can be made. The outcome is different each and every time. For example, your child might build a tower one day, a castle the next day, or even a dinosaur the day after that! Building blocks encourage your child to think logically about how the blocks could be used in various ways to produce a range of structures and designs.   Are you trying hard to ensure your kids enjoy a healthy balance of both structured activities and creative play? Do you find that both types of activities are helping them to become more confident and well rounded? Share your thoughts below: we’d love to hear from you!