Spaghetti Box Kids

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Structured vs. Unstructured Play: Is That What Really Matters?

September 3rd, 2008 · 10 Comments

You may have heard the terms ‘structured’ and ‘unstructured’ play and wondered—which is better for my child? That’s a bit like asking, ‘Which is better: fruits or vegetables?’ Someone who eats healthy is going to have both without even thinking about it. If you are providing plenty of playtime opportunities for your child, then both kinds of play are taking place.

Structured play has a set of rules with specific objectives. Most games fall under the category of structured play: card games, board games and classic outdoor games like red-light-green-light and tag are all structured activities. Putting puzzles together is a structured activity. So is following directions to assemble a toy, model airplane or Lego theme set. Organized sports—soccer, hockey, tennis, etc.—are all examples of structured activities. Generally speaking, when your child is engaging in structured play, she is seeking the most efficient way to achieve pre-existing objectives.

Unstructured play is open ended with unlimited possibilities. Playing with blocks is unstructured play. So is coloring, drawing or painting on blank paper. Deciding how to play with a toy airplane or doll is unstructured play. Inventing games to play is unstructured activity. So is running around the playground or park. Generally speaking, when your child is engaging in unstructured play, she is in the process of establishing her own objectives.

A consideration more important than structured vs. unstructured play is to ask whether the activity holds your child’s full attention. When your child is fully engaged in an activity, she is arranging and absorbing meaning. She’s finding reward in the act of understanding. She’s enjoying figuring it out, whether the “it”—the activity— is structured or unstructured. If you make a habit of providing quality playtime to your child, she’ll make a habit of taking ownership of an activity and applying her ingenuity and creativity to their fullest. That’s a valuable habit—a lifetime learning habit that does not have its origin in structured or unstructured play, but rather in quality play.

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Tags: Learning Strategies

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sam // Aug 27, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Nice job distinguishing between the two types of play, and shedding light on something more important (the consideration of whether a child is fully engaged in the activity). Makes sense.

  • 2 Spaghetti Box Kids // Aug 27, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks, Sam. I’m glad you agree. Of course there are merits to both structured and unstructured play, but the merits are empty without quality play.

  • 3 Ashley // Dec 23, 2011 at 3:57 am

    Great article. I love the emphasis on quality–I agree completely with the points you make.

  • 4 Amy // Jan 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Excellent job. You rightly put the emphasis back on basic, quality playtime. It’s really pretty straight forward.

    (Although I would have liked some mention of whether you consider video games as quality playtime.)

  • 5 Spaghetti Box Kids // Jan 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm


    Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you agree that the emphasis belongs on providing quality playtime.

    As for gadgets/ video games–I do make mention of those items from time to time. But sometimes the discussion is likely to disrupt the subject matter of an article, and this was one of those times.

    I reference electronic gadgets on my home page, and in various articles (generally in the intro or conclusion when I compare the merits of an activity to the passive/addictive/uncreative nature of gadget activities). I also give the topic consideration in the article: Toys: When Great Grandma Was a Little Girl

    Thanks Again–


  • 6 Caroline // Feb 18, 2013 at 2:48 am

    If I was to use this article, who would I source as the author? Thanks, Caroline.

  • 7 Spaghetti Box Kids // Feb 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm


    Thanks for your interest. If you quote the article, credit the author (Anthony Vecchioni) and, preferably, provide a link to the full article.

    If you use the full article, credit the author (by Anthony Vecchioni) at the beginning of the article and make the name a link to my About page. Then, at the end of the article, provide this statement (with links intact):

    Anthony Vecchioni runs – a parenting site that offers specific strategies, tips and activities to enhance child learning. Read more About Anthony Vecchioni.


  • 8 google // Aug 1, 2014 at 1:37 pm

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  • 9 Spaghetti Box Kids // Aug 4, 2014 at 8:09 am

    You might check for coding errors here:

  • 10 Abigail // Jan 26, 2015 at 3:20 am

    The way a child plays is important:
    •Play builds confidence and imagination
    •Play develops key motor and athletic skills
    •Play with others teaches teamwork and good sportsmanship
    •Play can build strong bonds between parents and children

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