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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