Unstructured play needs a comeback

Once upon a time, children made forts out of sheets draped over chairs, staged impromptu theatrical productions, and just stretched out on the grass, gazing into the treetops. They did this on their own. It was their idea, they were not on the clock, and no one was keeping score. Today, we see much less unstructured play. However, professionals and casual observers alike are deeming it a loss that needs reversal.

In an advertorial in USA Today on February 7, Peg L. Smith, who identifies herself as “a mother, early childhood professional, and CEO of the American Camp Association, writes that “it feels like the ‘ritual of resume building’ is trumping the ‘rights of childhood.’” By this she suggests that stress over getting—and keeping--a competitive edge in our fast-moving world, and the subsequent increase in time spent on formal education and structured play, may be diminishing some of the best and most important aspects of childhood.

She shares a University of Michigan research finding that the years 1981 through 1997 saw a 25 percent decline in play. We can presume that trend has continued. Smith writes, “Parallel to the loss of play is the decrease in access to the out of doors,” citing an unnamed source indicating “the average radius of play today is 500 square feet.”

Smith is not alone in her concern. Amid a rising chorus is David L. Hough, Ph.D., professor and interim dean, College of Education, Missouri State University. Last year he wrote an article in the Springfield News Leader, titled “Embrace Unstructured Play.” In it he suggested, “We need a modern day Educational Moses. We need someone to free our children from the shackles of adult matters and inappropriate, over-structured, over-organized activity bondage.”

As with so many things, variety is important. Smith suggests, “Learning environments must be engaging, adaptable, flexible, and mixed with structured and unstructured time,” adding that our “micromanaging” of kids due to fear over media reports of violence, may actually be slowing children’s natural development.

Kara Fleck, editor of SimpleKids blog, published with the tagline “childhood uncomplicated,” writes, “I think it is good for our children, and for us, to walk on the wild side and throw out the rules and the organized crafts and curriculum on a regular basis and just play. Kids need a healthy amount of unstructured play, even boredom. From that time and space, creativity and imagination have room to bloom.” She follows up her statement with quotes from 5 of her favorite parenting authors, championing the value of unstructured play.

While we do feel the push of an accelerated world, and many tools and activities have a place in preparing kids for it, perhaps the best rule of thumb is that old adage, “In all things, moderation.”