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Let them Play: Free Unstructured Play Leads to Healthier Children

By HERWriter
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letting children have free unstructured play makes them healthier Alena Ozerova- (RS)/PhotoSpin

The Dilemma About Play

Today’s society has us believing that if our children’s schedules aren’t full of new and organized experiences then we’re depriving them of vital learning opportunities.

It is common knowledge that children learn best by playing. And adults have tried to take advantage of that by structuring as much “learning” into those play moments as possible — when all we really need to do is not structure their play time at all.

Children have lost the sense — as have we — of the value of doing things “just 'cause” and on the spur of the moment, and of the value of doing nothing at all.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less" said, “There is a myth that doing nothing is wasting time, when it’s actually extremely productive and essential ... During empty hours, kids explore the world at their own pace, develop their own unique set of interests and indulge in the sort of play that will help them figure out how to create their own happiness, handle problems with others on their own, and sensibly manage their own time. That’s a critical life skill.” (2)

Instead of getting the most out of life, many overscheduled children experience:

• anxiety

• anger

• burn out

• headaches

• stomachaches

• temper tantrums

• inability to concentrate

• sleep problems (2)

The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “The challenge for society, schools, and parents is to strike the balance that allows all children to reach their potential, without pushing them beyond their personal comfort limits, and while allowing them personal free time.” (5)

The Value of Free Unstructured Play

Through unstructured play, children experience or learn:

• Stress relief

• Physical exercise

• Self-regulation - their ability to control their emotions and behavior and to resist impulses

• Intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being

• How to work in groups

• Sharing

• Negotiating

• Conflict resolution

• How to speak-up for themselves (6)

Add a Comment2 Comments

HERWriter Guide


What an excellent article!

We decided before we had children that we would not be sports or academic chauffeurs who run around driving the kids to so many activities and that we wouldn't feed into the stress it causes. We kept this promise even though everyone said we'd change!

They do have structured activities - one with tennis twice a week one with gymnastics once a week and one with gymnastics and Irish dancing (once a week for each activity).

This is plenty for our family, the kids get to do something structured with other kids but the rest of their free time is all free play. I'm a big believer in the older 70s style free childhoods that foster joy and imagination, rather than worries, stress and fatigue. I don't get that life at all.

Thanks again for such an informative and affirming article!


October 23, 2013 - 12:50pm
HERWriter (reply to Susan Cody)

Thank you, Susan!

I promised the same thing.

My ex still criticizes me for not getting our older son involved in more things or for not taking our our youngest out enough, and I have teachers telling me he needs more structure, structure, structure...and I'm like, no. While they need a certain rhythm to their day and certain, consistent expectations from me--but they need the unstructured time. Time to just play, in some cases, without rules. I'm more relaxed. They're more relaxed.

It makes it more challenging with my older son being mildly autistic and my younger son having sensory processing disorder. They both deal with stress differently and can't handle as much as a "normal" child - which my ex also seems to forget.

So, yes, I believe we all need to get back to doing a little bit--and in some cases a lot--of nothing.

October 24, 2013 - 1:14pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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