Leaving them to it: the importance of unstructured play

This post was written by Shula K. Tue, 10/11/2022 - 12:28 in Health & Wellness, Play
Kids Playing Outdoors at Camp

Kids know best
When I was growing up, my mom had a wonderful LP of Joyce Grenfell. She was an English comedian who rocked the perky, ironic monologue like nobody’s business. Her character was a preschool teacher narrating one side of a conversation with kids. Gems from her collection included things like, “George! Don’t do that” and, “Sidney, take that paintbrush out of your ear,” all delivered in an upbeat voice that somehow let you know how shocked, frustrated or disgusted she was. 

My favourite bit, which my mom and I still howl over, is where she asks a child what she’s painting. “Is that the sun? Or a big, bright orange? OH! It’s a picture of Mommy! Are you going to give her a nose? No? Oh, no nose….”

Finding their groove
The reason I find this so hilarious is that while the adult is trying hard to maintain her position as an authority figure, she’s been bested by the kid – whose voice you never even hear. I just love the way the adult struggles so very hard with the child’s artistic freedom. Meanwhile, the child is utterly contented.

Of course, there’s a serious side to it, too. For me, the message here is about allowing children to be themselves, to do what they do best. To find their own, unique path towards self-hood, free from any restrictions. Or as children’s musician Jennifer Gasoi sings, “You can paint outside the lines, just so you can see / How it feels to colour in your style and not another / You’ve got your own style, you’ve got your own groove.”

Building confidence
When kids use their imaginations in this unfettered way, they’re exercising their curiosity. What happens if I roll the ball like this? Will it come out of the other end? What happens if I put these colours together? Will the blocks fall if I add another on the top? This mental exercise is an opportunity to experiment and feel adventurous. It supports the development of decision-making skills and with that, the knowledge that trial and error is part of life, as it is a part of play. With all this comes increased self-confidence.

The five senses
Left to your own devices, you have room to experience your senses more fully. How does the clay feel? How does it smell? What does it feel like to squish it between my fingers? Some kids also like to talk about what they’re doing, which helps them stretch their language abilities. I must have recorded hours of our older son’s chatter as he played with little characters, making up stories as he went. 

Get out there
Of course, the best place for unstructured play is outside, and with friends. You don’t need toys, just sticks, leaves, running water and whatever you can climb, jump over or peek into. There’s no pressure to meet anyone’s expectations but you can exercise your curiosity together, make decisions and draw out connections between the things you see.  Sometimes the coolest surprises are out there, among the trees, a toadstool that looks like a fairy’s goblet, full of gold, or a woodpecker perched on a tree.  

So instead of trying to sculpt every moment of my kids’ play with scheduled classes or planned activities, I try to think of it in the way I’d approach feeding wild birds. Scatter the seeds (or the friends, toys, art materials, ideas or field trips) and step back, watch and wait. Something magical is bound to happen.  

NVRC offers unstructured play during some Early Years Drop-In Programs.

You can also read more about how unstructured play is critical to child development at Scientific American


Shula K.

Shula is a writer, broadcaster and artist. Her writing has appeared in  the Globe and Mail, the Guardian Newspaper (UK) and on national CBC radio. Read her articles in the Jewish Independent, where she is a regular contributor. 




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