Let ‘Em Play: How Unstructured Time Benefits Your Child

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

If you were a fan of the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes back in its heyday, you may remember one of Calvin’s favorite games, Calvinball. Calvinball wasn’t exactly soccer, or baseball, or any other game we adults might recognize–but it did involve a lot of made-up rules, arguing, and crazy running around. When my own kids are out in the backyard together, it sometimes reminds me a lot of Calvinball!

But even when it looks a bit chaotic, I’m a fan of free play for kids. It’s my belief—and research backs me up—that unguided time to explore and play at their own place helps children develop crucial skills. Now a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology offers more evidence for the value of less structured time for kids.

Structured vs. Unstructured Time Measured

In this interesting research, researchers asked the parents of seventy children between the ages of six and seven (mostly from higher-income suburban families) to track their children’s daily activities for a week. Activities like playtime, socializing, reading, family outings to educational places, and media use were considered unstructured, while activities like sports practice, music lessons, and homework were considered structured. (Sleeping, eating, and going to school were excluded.) Parents also rated how often their children participated in various typical activities, like lessons, sports, and religious instruction, throughout the year.

An important characteristic of “structured” activities was that they were organized and managed by adults, while unstructured activities were more child-led.

More Unstructured Time = Better Executive Functioning

Then the children were given a test that measured an ability known as executive functioning. Executive functioning, or EF, involves the abilities that allow us to focus, think creatively, problem-solve, and show self-control. EF skills have been shown to predict success in school, and even in life. Many believe that unstructured playtime is great for developing executive functioning in children.

Sure enough, these researchers found that the more time these children were spending in less structured activities, the better they did on a test that measured their self-directed executive function. (In the test, children had to name as many animals or foods they could in one minute. Try it, if you like–it’s harder than you think!) The opposite also held true: children who were spending the most time in structured activities, such as sports practice and lessons, did the worst on this test.

What’s the Connection?

The researchers believe that time spent in enriching activities and play (not screen activities) is what helped these children develop better executive function. This type of rich unstructured time may be beneficial for many reasons, but in part because children make their own decisions about what to do, and work towards their own goals, rather than those set by someone else. Learning to think and problem-solve on their own like this is thought to help kids develop executive function.

This research is preliminary, and there could be other reasons for the findings. For instance, it might be the case that children who already have good executive function tend to choose less structured activities. However, the results are in line with current thinking on the importance of child-directed play. While there is certainly also value in organized activity, parents should keep in mind that children thrive on free time to explore, pretend, and create.

(Photo credit: Untitled by Maggie Brauer. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading:

Building Brain Power: Executive Function and Young Children–from Penn State Extension

The Importance of Play–from UF-IFAS Santa Rosa County Extension

Supporting Make-Believe Play--from the research-supported Tools of the Mind curriculum


Barker, J., et al. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593

Milteer, R. M. & Ginsberg, K. R. (2011). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bond: Focus on children in poverty. Pediatrics, 129(1), e204-e213. http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-2953



Posted: July 14, 2014

Category: Relationships & Family, Work & Life
Tags: Health And Wellness, Parenting

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