Understanding Structured Play vs. Unstructured Play

The most important period of human development occurs from birth to 8 years of age. During these years, learning is incredibly fast-paced. Our experiences are key in our development of understanding social situations, developing cognitive skills, and building the foundation of positive emotional, physical, and mental well-being. This sets us up for success into adulthood.1 One of the key ways that children learn is through different types of play, including structured and unstructured play. Everybody knows play when they see it; children playing tag, building with blocks, or playing dress-up. But are you aware of the integral role of play in your child’s overall well-being and development? In this article, we’ll explain what a structured vs. unstructured play environment looks like, the benefits and meaning of each, and how to balance the two types of activities.

A young girl wearing a visor and athletic outfit plays pickleball outdoors on a court with a net. Engaging in some unstructured play, she is focused on hitting the ball with her paddle. Trees and buildings form a blurred background.

There are different types of play, each with its own guidelines, goals, and benefits. Structured play refers to organized, arranged activities that an adult leads with specific learning, development, or other goals in mind. They generally follow some kind of rules or steps and may occur in a structured environment like school or a childcare setting. Play can range from scaffolded (where grown-ups simply guide play) to games (pre-arranged rules) to direct adult instruction.2 The purpose of structured play is to provide a framework to help children with an area of development, like cognitive, speech, physical, social, and/or emotional.2

Essentially, the meaning of structured play is that play has a purpose, has predetermined and predictable goals and outcomes, and involves learning occurring in a controlled setting.2 Examples of structured play include activities such as:

  • Board games
  • Team sports
  • Educational games
  • Arts and crafts with specific instructions

Structured play offers numerous benefits for children:3,4

Through structured activities, children can develop specific skills. This might include gross or fine motor skills, reading, or mathematics. For example, if you’re cooking together, your child may learn mathematics skills (counting cups or spoonfuls of ingredients), reading, comprehension, and social skills like communication and turn-taking.

When children succeed, they feel a sense of self-esteem and confidence in their ability to achieve. When structured activities address specific skills and consider the child’s current capacity, they can feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in their achievements. This can help them feel more capable, resilient, and able to take on new challenges.

Increased Focus and Discipline

Structured play helps children learn about discipline and focus. They experience this through learning to follow instructions, turn-taking, maintaining focus and attention, and breaking down tasks into subtasks or goals to help them achieve things. These skills are essential for school and personal success as an adult.

Two young children are pictured engaging in unstructured play on a yellow slide at a playground. They are both smiling and appear to be enjoying themselves. The background includes various playground equipment and an outdoor setting, showcasing the freedom of different types of play.

Unstructured play is also known as free play. The meaning of unstructured play is that, essentially, children are allowed to have (and supported in having) the freedom to explore, create, and discover on their terms.2 It doesn’t follow a set of guidelines or rules in the same way that structured play does, and it’s ultimately child-led. This kind of play is driven by a child’s imagination, interest, or urge to process and understand things happening in their life. It’s spontaneous and can happen anywhere, at any time.2 Unstructured play examples may include:

  • Doing crafts or drawing (self-directed, not set up by a grown-up)
  • Playing with toys
  • Playing pretend

Sometimes, adults can struggle to see the benefit of this kind of play, as it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. However, it is just as, if not more, beneficial to our children’s well-being and development than structured play. The benefits of unstructured play include:5,6

Communication, Cooperation, and Conflict Resolution

When children play without adult guidelines or interventions, they must learn how to navigate social scenarios, cooperate, take turns, and use communication to share ideas or get their needs heard and met. In addition, certain types of play (like dressing up or role-play) allow them to explore and play with language and practice different communication styles as they take on various roles or characters.

Unstructured play allows children to use their imagination; they can invent games and create characters and stories. Because there are no rules, they can feel safe to explore new ideas without limitations. This helps foster innovation and creativity.

During unstructured play, children drive play, so they have a chance to make choices and learn how to solve problems. Or, because the play isn’t led by grown-ups, children can feel safe to explore what’s important to them. They can play out (and process) things that are bothering them or things they want to practice and perfect. This can help enhance a sense of confidence and autonomy.

Although structured and unstructured play are both beneficial, it’s important to balance them to ensure your child’s development is well-rounded. Different types of play offer complementary benefits, and children need both structured environments and open-ended activities to thrive.2 Here are some things to consider:7

  • Find balance: It might be tempting to go to extremes—either creating too much structure or leaving children to play without opportunities for tailored growth and developmental activities. It’s all about balance, as children need both types of play for optimal development.
  • Identify areas of interest: A child’s interest should guide their play (where possible) to engage and invest them in the activity and to enhance their existing skills and capacity. But remember, you must always tailor it to their stage of development. For example, if your child likes dinosaurs, you could find a book on dinosaurs, take them to a museum, or find some dinosaur figurines to play with.
  • Give them options: Offer them lots of different options for play — have crafts available, provide a variety of toys, and engage them in various activities (playing sports, cooking, reading, getting outside, etc.).
  • Don’t correct their play: Try to avoid pressuring your child to play with things “correctly.” They might use their barnyard animals to represent cars or pretend a banana is a phone, which is okay. One key benefit of play is that it’s a safe space for children, so avoid interfering with their play.
A young boy with glasses builds a tower with colorful wooden blocks in a brightly lit indoor play area, engaging in structured play. A woman behind him claps, smiling. A girl in a purple dress stands in the background, observing. The room has blue walls and various play equipment.

Neurodivergent children, including those who have ADHD or autism, may have different play needs, including how structured versus unstructured play is balanced. Engaging in structured play may offer a sense of predictability and structure. You can address or target specific skills, and it helps them practice and build on their ability to focus. In contrast, unstructured play gives them an opportunity for self-expression, creativity, and sensory integration.8

As with neurotypical children, play (unstructured or structured) and activities for neurodivergent children should consider their personalities and preferences. Rigid structure or free-play can be anxiety-producing or overwhelming, depending on their unique needs (i.e., what might be comfortable for one individual might be distressing for another). Therefore, you should offer neurodivergent children a balanced approach incorporating both types of play. In addition, to improve their comfort with different types of play and enhance the outcomes, it might help to use different tools or strategies to support them. This includes things like visual supports or social stories.8

When you encourage purposeful play with your kids, it’s important to value both structured and unstructured play. And when you create a balance between both, you optimize their development, creativity, independence, and general well-being. This will help your child thrive now and into adulthood.