Structured Play vs. Free Play

Published: 18 Jan 2023

What do you think of when you hear the word “play?” Maybe you picture a child building a tower with LEGO® bricks. Perhaps you recall spending hours running around your backyard engaged in an intense game of hide and seek. Or, maybe you think of Barbie® dolls, toy soldiers or model cars. All of these activities sound drastically different, but they have one thing in common — they are all important tools to engage children in discovery. 

“Play” is the way children learn to think about the world around them. It’s how they practice social skills, develop motor skills and apply the concepts they learn in the classroom. Even something as simple as sliding down a slide can have an important and lasting impact on a child’s brain function and physical development. And science has proven it. The American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed this in a 2018 report in which they highlighted the connections between a child’s play and their social connections and brain development. 

As a parent, there are some simple yet effective ways you can guide your child in their play. No, we don’t mean dictate their activities — that’s not really playing, is it? — but you can encourage them to choose a variety of activities that will help them to engage in both structured play and free play. 

What Is Structured Play?

Structured play is a term used to refer to a goal-oriented activity. Examples of structured play include board games, outdoor games like tag, organized sports such as soccer or anything else that requires a child to follow directions to complete something.

What Are the Benefits of Structured Play?

In these and other structured play examples, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on a child’s developing logic skills. It challenges them to follow directions and solve problems that come up along the way. It also provides “structure” by establishing guidelines and rules that are used to achieve the goal of the activity. Here are four of the primary benefits of structured play.

1. Setting and Achieving Goals

Structured play, by definition, helps a child learn how to set and achieve goals. Even a simple board game can allow a child to determine the outcome they’re looking for — such as collecting a certain number of marbles or completing a pattern — and figure out the best way to get there. Along the way, they learn how to deal with challenges that arise and how to efficiently work toward a goal. 

2. Problem Solving

Structured play teaches children a lot about problem-solving because they must identify and overcome obstacles along the way. It may be something simple, like searching for and attaching a certain LEGO® element to their construction. It may be working together with a sibling to complete a complicated puzzle or find one of their friends during a game of hide and seek. Whatever the scenario, structured play actively engages kids to work toward viable solutions that help them achieve a goal. 

3. Active Listening

There isn’t a parent out there who hasn’t lamented at some point that their child doesn’t appear to be listening to them. Take action and encourage them to engage in a structured activity in which listening to or reading directions is key to a successful outcome. As a child spends more time engaging in structured activities, they will gradually learn that listening and paying attention to directions are the keys to a successful outcome. 

4. Low Stress

Although structured play is important for all children, those with autism spectrum disorder or children who tend to get easily overwhelmed by “free” play benefit significantly from more structured activities. These activities establish clear outcomes, and having an end goal in mind can help prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed or stressed out by trying to figure out how to engage in open-ended play. 

What Is Free Play?

On the other end of the play spectrum is “free play.” Free play is exactly what it sounds like — open-ended, unstructured play that allows children to creatively engage with each other and the world around them. Examples of free play activities include time spent running around a playground, make-believe games such as dress up and coloring. 

What Are the Benefits of Free Play? 

In these and other examples of unstructured play, children are afforded the time and space to hone their creativity by coming up with their own “goals” and ideas about how to conduct their play. There is no grown-up guiding their play or directions to tell them how it should turn out in the end. This offers several benefits, including the following.

1. Exploration

Free play allows children the opportunity to engage with the world around them. They can explore things that interest them and discover more about how the world works. How? Take outdoor play as an example. If a child is allowed to run around in the backyard, they will encounter trees, sky, animals and plants, among other things. Their curiosity about what things are and what they do is piqued simply by being exposed to it. 

2. Socialization

When children are allowed to engage in free play with other children, it enables them to practice their social skills. They learn how to engage with others, form relationships and work together to solve problems and overcome challenges. They also have the opportunity to practice empathy as they interact with their peers.

3. Freedom to Make Mistakes

As parents, the last thing we want to do is encourage a child to fail. But one great thing about free play is that it provides children with the space they need to make and correct mistakes in a low-stakes environment.

4. Confidence

Free play is perhaps best known for helping to boost confidence in children, especially those who tend to be shy. They learn how to express their thoughts and feelings when they are in a safe space, such as their own room or backyard. They develop the ability to think quickly and process their feelings as they explore the world around them. Ultimately, this translates into more confidence and the development of a unique life perspective that will stick with them as they grow. 

5. Physical Exercise

Free play often takes the form of physical exercise. Even sliding down a slide at the park or swinging on a swing is physical activity. Today’s children don’t get enough physical activity, so encouraging creative, outdoor play is a wonderful way to help keep their minds and their bodies healthy.

How to Strike a Balance Between Both

Children are wired to engage in both free play and structured play as an important part of their development. As parents, it’s our job to encourage both structured play and free play to help our children develop. There are some simple ways to incorporate the advantages of free play while still being mindful of the importance of structured play in a child’s development. 

1. Don’t Force It

It’s a great idea to frequently expose your child to new games and activities. One of the fun parts of parenting is introducing your child to new things, such as a sport or a game that meant a lot to you as a child. But there’s a difference between introducing a new type of play and forcing a child to engage in it. For example, your child may not be interested in kicking a soccer ball around the back yard. They may prefer to play in the sandbox or run around with a butterfly net catching bugs. Take note of the activities that hold your child’s attention — and those that don’t. And respect their preferences. 

What does it mean to respect their preferences? Don’t force your child to take karate lessons because you think it’s a good structured activity. If they don’t like karate, then stop the lessons and reevaluate. Maybe your child would prefer to play basketball or baseball. Or, maybe they’d prefer a break from sports and want to join a robotics team. Allow them to tell you how certain activities make them feel and be willing to help them find alternatives they will enjoy. 

2. Be Attentive to Your Child’s Response 

Ideally, children should engage in both structured and free play activities. However, many children are unable to divide their time and attention equally between these two types of play. One big example of this is seen in children with autism spectrum disorder. These children may find it difficult to successfully engage in free play because the lack of direction or structure in the activity can be overwhelming. They may become upset or confused by free play activities, or they may struggle to engage with their peers who are participating in these activities with them.

3. Avoid Overscheduling

Take a close look at your child’s daily schedule. Are you the kind of parent who schedules every minute of their day? Your child may need some time to engage in free, unstructured play. When a child is only experiencing the structure of goal-oriented activities, such as sports and music lessons, they don’t have the opportunity to exercise their creativity as they engage in free play. 

On the other hand, some parents go too far in the other direction and encourage their children to entertain themselves through free play all the time. Unfortunately, this can translate into too much screen time. If you’re a parent who tends to let your child entertain themselves, especially in front of the television or tablet, then incorporating some structured play into their day is a great way to get them off the couch and engaging in the world around them. Consider signing them up for an art class, team sport or LEGO® club to encourage them to participate in more structured activities.

4. Enjoy Both Types of Play

Above all else, enjoy watching your child grow and develop through play. Even young children are already developing talents and abilities, along with likes and dislikes. It’s okay to have a child who can sit and put puzzles together for hours. Jump in and help them! It’s okay to have a child who wants to swing for hours — push that swing with one hand and sip your latte with the other. Parents should never discourage either form of play or try to tear their children away from something they love. Instead, encourage their interests and get creative!

If you have a child who loves free play more than structured activities, start sneaking a structured activity into their free play. If you have a child who loves to run and play outside, sign them up for a soccer league or a swim class — these activities keep them moving, but provide some structure and are goal-oriented. If you have a child who tends to sit quietly coloring and looking at books, take them on a nature walk so that they can find new things to incorporate into their drawings.

5. Embrace the Concept of Boredom

Some parents tend to pack their child’s daily schedules because they don’t want their children to be bored. But there’s nothing wrong with giving your child time in their day when they don’t have anything specific to do. These periods of downtime serve two purposes. First, they allow your child’s brain and body to recharge after being busy. Second, they provide them with opportunities to look for things to do without the help of an adult. Teaching your child to relax and enjoy free time is a skill that will serve them well throughout their life.

6. Engage With Your Child

Parents have a lot on their plates. There’s work, meals, laundry, carpools — the list goes on and on. We tend to view our child’s play as a chance to check out or engage in other activities. Some days, this is unavoidable. After all, those clothes aren’t going to fold themselves! But stop for a minute and consider play as an opportunity to engage with your child. Whether you’re playing “red light, green light” in the backyard or helping them paint a picture of a bird, play offers plenty of opportunities to interact with your child. 

Bricks 4 Kidz

In today’s world, play is often viewed as an “extra” when it comes to our children’s schedules, but it’s essential for healthy, balanced development. The best way to do this depends on your child and your family, but it’s possible with just a little bit of thought. 

At Bricks 4 Kidz, we know firsthand the importance of play in a child’s day-to-day activities. In fact, our number one goal is to encourage children’s curiosity using LEGO® Bricks. Using LEGO® products makes our activities so much fun that kids often don’t even realize we’re teaching them the fundamentals of science, technology, mathematics and engineering. 

We offer camps, workshops, classes, birthday parties and more. Have a child who loves to build and explore the way things work? Don’t wait — find your nearest Bricks 4 Kidz location today