Kids Need Unstructured Playtime

Our Grants Manager Taryn Yates recommends telling your school administrators how important play time is to you and vote for educational leaders that share your values. Check out her monthly parenting column in Pocatello’s Times Register:

During the school year, tell your school administrators how important play time is to you and vote for educational leaders that share your values, writes Taryn Yates.

It’s that time of year again. I’ve stocked up on sunblock, bug spray, hats, bathing suits and the kind of snacks that don’t go bad when left in the car. I’ve had to have the nightly talk with my 3-year-old about why he has to go to bed when it’s still so sunny out. I tried to explain to him about the tilt of the earth using a ball and a batman action figure, but I’m not sure it worked.

play is healthy

Yes, summer is well underway. Along with long, hot days come swimming lessons and vacations complete with trips to zoos and museums. We try to make it as educational and enriching as possible, but I’ve noticed that my kids also need free time to run around and blow off steam or else they melt down faster than an ice cream cone in August. Turns out, that’s pretty normal. Unstructured play is an essential requirement for all children.

Unstructured play is defined as open-ended play without a predetermined set of rules and without teacher or parent involvement. It allows children to explore their world and their role in it. My son loves soccer practice and it has many benefits (learning team work and communication) but it’s not the same as unstructured play. Unstructured play is what happens when you let your children loose on a playground or in a room full of toys and then sit back and watch. They may pretend they are pirates on the sea, play house, build a castle out of blocks, or maybe they just run around with a laundry basket on their head. The point is, they had the agency to decide something for themselves and the opportunity to work things out.

Therein lays the beauty and benefit of unstructured play. Research shows that this type of play is critical for brain development, especially the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for self-regulation and executive functions such as socialization, task and risk management. Unstructured play allows children to negotiate roles with other children and to try out different scenarios in order to explore the world and their place in it. This has both physical and intellectual benefits. Children who don’t receive enough unstructured play could end up with less physical dexterity and mental flexibility- the ability to adapt to changing circumstances- than their playful peers.

Unstructured play has gotten a lot of notice in the last couple of years. Expectations and requirements on teachers and students- even preschoolers- have risen so that teachers and school administrators feel the pressure to add on school work and lessen recess. This has parents worried – and rightfully so. Play has ramifications on children’s academic futures. One study showed that the best predictor of a child’s eighth grade academic success was their social competence in third grade. And since play boosts social skills, it a short skip to see that play also helps grades. This is demonstrated in countries like Finland who prioritize frequent play breaks and who consistently outrank the U.S. in test scores (they also have a different education funding strategy, but that’s another story).

So, what’s a parent to do? During the school year, tell your school administrators how important play time is to you and vote for educational leaders that share your values. And during the summer? Whether it comes naturally, or you have to add it to your to-do list, make time to sit back and relax while letting your kids run (reasonably) free. After all, they aren’t the only ones who need a break.



ICTF’s Grant Manager, Taryn Yates, had a regular parenting column in her hometown newspaper, The Idaho Fall’s Post Register from 2018-2019. We have assembled them all here on our website, and she will continue her parenting insights as a website blog.

Yates, Master in Social Work, is a grantsmanager and planner for the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund/Prevent Child Abuse Idaho.