Unstructured & Free: Play Without a Purpose

A new study by Gallup (funded by toy company Melissa and Doug) has found that though today’s parents would like to see their kids get outside to play more, there is little encouragement for unstructured child-led free play indoors.

The study surveyed 1,271 parents and caregivers of children ten years old and younger living in the United States (some survey questions used only the results of those with children from two to ten years old). Through the study’s questions, researchers realized today’s parents may not be aware of the benefits of child-led free play. Instead, parents reported higher preferences for their children to participate in organized sports, structured activities, and educational activities. In fact, the only activities parents rated as less preferred was time on electronic devices and watching media. However, according to the survey, children were still spending more time with screens than participating in unstructured play indoors.

The parents/caregivers surveyed also showed a preference of restricting boredom. Only 21 percent of parents strongly agreed that it’s good for their children to be bored now and then. When their children are bored, only 33 percent of parents reported that they let their children find their own solution to boredom, while the others either talk them through activity options, stop what they’re doing to play with them, allow them screen time, or set them up with an activity to keep them busy.

Why Free Play is Important


These findings are troubling, as unstructured play and boredom can help develop skills in creativity and problem-solving. The Gallup study concluded, “Many parents may not recognize the positive role that unstructured, child-led play can have on their children’s development, despite the scientific research linking this type of play to the development of problem-solving skills, social cooperation, resiliency, and creativity.”

In response to the study, Education Week spoke with a play researcher at Temple University, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who emphasized that unstructured play is needed. Unstructured play develops the same skills as structured play, but in different ways. Parents in the study associated structured play with creativity and problem-solving skills, but reported that social and academic skills were more important. Hirsh-Pasek reminded Education Week readers that the job market is placing more value on those with creative and problem-solving skills, so though parents may not find it as important now, it can affect children’s futures.

Play at Fairmont

Incorporating play in the school day is important at Fairmont Private Schools, especially for our younger students. Fairmont Private Schools’ Director of Early Childhood Education, Kristen Jansen, had this to say about the importance of play and how it is incorporated into the school day:

Fairmont Private Schools students enjoy free play with dress up.

Our young students have the opportunity for play and self-selected activities throughout their school days at Fairmont. We encourage families to start their children’s day off right by arriving at school early, prior to the start of their structured day. This allows for free play in our preschool classes and outside time for our older students.
Students go outside for recess time mid-morning and at lunch time. Students who stay after school have more time outside during extended day hours. Throughout their time at recess, the children not only have time to get large motor exercise, but this time is instrumental in their interpersonal skills. Our youngsters learn to share, cooperate, and how to get through small disagreements.
While inside the classroom, play looks very different. Our students often play in the form of self-selected center time. You may see students building structures out of blocks, pretending to be a chef in a dramatic play center, or investigating objects in their science center. This play time allows students to be independent. 
Play helps students grow their imaginations. Throughout their busy and sometimes over-scheduled days, play also gives our children the down time to select those things that make them happy.

Find Time for Free Play

It’s imperative that parents find time for their children to participate in unstructured play. It may seem silly, but, in today’s busy always on-the-go schedule, it’s important for children to still find time to grow the skills unstructured play promotes.

We all want our children to be successful and it’s actually key to their success to enjoy play without a purpose. Take a moment to go over your kids’ busy schedules filled with school, after school curricular activities, sports practices and games, music lessons, and more. Find a time once a week where your kids can have time to play outside (or inside) without screens. Find time for their imaginations and creativity to run wild.

Sources: Education Week, Gallup, and

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