Finding Balance Between Structured and Unstructured Play


In our previous article about Outdoor Play, we talked about the benefits of unstructured play. Maybe it raised some questions among the readers. Such as: does it mean that unstructured play better than structured play?

Eventhough there are researches showed that unstructured play has many benefits, structured play has it own significance role for children development. What are the differences and what impact do they give?

Structured Play

In structured play, adults set up goals, rules, instruction, place, and time the play are conducted. We can find structured play in the form of soccer, gymastic, swimming sport, Lego theme set, card games, etc. In the structured continuum, there is also guided play. Guided play can be done by setting up environment and objects that prompt children to experience new things. Adults can have role as co-player, inquiring children activities, giving advices, and encouraging further exploration (White, 2012).

Bakiak Game (photo from Segara)

Structured play usually created to foster certain skill such as logic, coordination, and body movement.  Prowse (2015) explained that these body movement skills called ABCs.

Not only body movement skills that encouraged in structured play, but also problem solving, resilience, working in team, and active listening. Children who succes to master the skills that had been planned, can feel confidence and competence. In some extend, children that have natural talent in the sport or field and/or practice it continously , can boost their skill to the crafty level. But children also can fall in failure feeling if they can not manage to build something or conduct the activities successfully. It can affect their feeling of worth and efficacy (Playground Center, 2015).

Structured play also give great contribution in learning. Children can learn subjects in fun way and they can totally active in it. Therapy for children mostly (if we can not say all of them), also involve play as the media. Some in form of structured play.

Unstructured Play

As we have explained it in the article before, we give brief overview about unstructured play.

There is no plan, rules, and instruction conducted by adults in unstructured play or often called as free play. It is totally children’s will that lead the play it self. It involve creative work and improvisation by the children. Children can choose any objects they want to play with or to build. They also can choose to play without equipment at all. They can just running, jumping, giggling, or hopping.

It seems that children learn nothing, but actually when they are enganging free play they are improving their imaginative and creative thinking. Children learn from scratch and there is no limit for them to explore. Free play allow children to gain control and make mistakes. The interaction with friends during play time also help children to communicate, express themselves, solve problem,  and emphatize.

Free Play (photo from Matthew Brownig)

Joy Is The Key
We come to realize that both form of play essentially influence children development. Children can gain benefits from both. Parents can attempt to find balance. Here is what parents can try to (Prowse, 2015):

  • Give children time to engage in free play everyday.
  • If they spend most their time indoor, then we can encourage them to play in outdoor.
  • Give them space and authority to choose what they want to play. It could be free play they want to do or they choose strcutured play such as soccer, card, or badminton they end up choose.
  • Try to understand the children character, strength, weakness, and interest. Parents can list various structured play that can improve them. Ask their opinion about this and whether they interested to engange one or several activities or not.
  • When children engage in structured play, make sure that parents and other adults in the environment do not put any pressure in them. Especially in younger children. Make a supportive communication, including with their friends. That the happiness, process, and team work (if there is any) are more important than the result itself.
  • Always consider the joy that children seek in play activities, whether structured or unstructured play. If there is no enjoyment in it, then they can not actively engage in the activity. Whatever the goal planned, will difficut to achieve if the children do not interested. Always make pleasurable interaction and environment for them. If there is no fun then it is not play.



Playground Center. (2015). Unstructured vs Structured Play. Accessed through

Prowse, S. (2015). Make Time For Play: How To Balance Structured And Unstructured Play. Accessed through

White, R. E. (2012). The Power of Play:A Research Summary on Play and Learning. St. Paul: Minnesota Children’s Museum

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