Structured and unstructured play: What’s the real difference?

Structured and unstructured play: What’s the real difference?

One of the most important things kids do is play. It teaches them about their world and allows them to explore, interact with things, learn how things work, and also teaches them problem-solving skills. It also helps develop motor and visual skills and promotes higher-level thinking while also fostering imagination and creativity. But what is the difference between structured and unstructured play, and does it matter which one your kid does? Let’s take a look at the differences between guided play and free play and why each is important.


Understanding structured and unstructured play

What is free play?

When we talk about unstructured play (free play), the meaning is exactly that: the child simply plays. Free play is an important time for learning and discovering because the child plays without boundaries. When your kid is engaged in free play, he or she dictates the play, engagement, and the outcome, which means it’s all just for the fun of it.


What is guided play?

Structured play (guided play) isn’t exactly what it sounds like. This doesn’t mean you’re actually guiding your child in play, because, in fact, your kid does most of the guiding here. In structured play, you are the one that takes play to the next level. Structured play has a goal (which is the main difference between structured and unstructured play). The goal is to interact with the child to help improve your kid’s learning and understanding of certain concepts. Even though you might not work on planned activity, you’re just inserting a little bit of structure into what the child is doing.


By observing what your child is interested in and then offering new materials and toys to expand the play, you’re helping your child learn. It’s important to ask lots of open-ended questions and narrate what your child is doing to help them stay focused on what they’re playing.


Structured and unstructured play: Is one better than the other?

Research says that kids benefit from a variety of both structured and unstructured play experiences. Kids are much more likely to develop the necessary foundation skills for additional learning and academic skills when they’re provided with various opportunities to play, regardless of whether it’s guided or free play.


By Seldean Smith

Seldean is a full-time single mom and avid contributor to the Kiddles website. Her hobbies include discovering awesome new places and spaces for kids and writing content that resonates with the hearts of other parents.

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