The Perils of Unstructured Play, part 1: Completing Tasks

Leonardo Da Vinci created dozens of brilliant creative designs like this that he never actually built.  Is this what unstructured play is about?

With the next few Kidtinuum entries, I’ll try to address some of the downsides—or perceived downsides—of unstructured play. I’ll start with one raised by a parent whose son, Andrew, is a lot like Jamie from the Kidtinuum article of a couple of weeks ago—highly inquisitive and always enthralled with some new idea or experiment.

One thing stands out the most: Andrew [like Leonardo da Vinci] loves to start on something interesting, but seldom finishes what he started. While in the midst of doing one thing, he often gets distracted by something else that he finds interesting (of which there are MANY!). Sometimes he’ll get back to the original problem after going around the universe through many other tangents, but other times he’ll never get back to it. It has been a challenge for all of us to try to help him follow through, because there are just WAY TOO MANY THINGS for him to follow through with. I guess that’s one of the problems with “unstructured play,” though the advantages are many! The real excitement is mainly in the exploration itself—learning and discovering new things, making up or hypothesizing and proving things … and finding so much joy in doing so! That is priceless!!!!!

I can identify with Andrew because I was—am—him. I’ve always been more of an “idea” person than a finisher. But I can also identify with his mom, because as a teacher I regularly expect my students to commit to a task and follow it through to completion. I am often frustrated, though, by the brilliant but fickle students who would follow the most fleeting flight of fancy at the expense of finishing the assignment.

So providing structure is one way of reigning in the free-flowing, zig-zagging mindset that unstructured play encourages. By limiting the possibilities for engagement, one can better direct that engagement. There are important lessons here for children about goals and focus and the value of a finished product.

But kids have many opportunities to get that structure and learn those lessons in their more structured activities—school, sports, church groups, etc. The huge benefit of providing time for unstructured play is evident in Andrew’s mom’s observation at the end of her comment: a priceless process of exploration.

Kids need a balance, and Andrew’s mom clearly understands this—just look at her use of capital letters and exclamation points. Her exasperation with Andrew’s unstructured flightiness warrants five capitalized words, and her joy at Andrew’s love of discovery receives five exclamation points to emphasize that it’s priceless. This is our job as parents and educators: balance the opportunities and lessons that our children receive, and balance the messages they get from us. When it’s time for structure, let them see we mean business, but when it’s time for uninhibited exploration, let them see our joy in their discoveries.

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10 Responses to The Perils of Unstructured Play, part 1: Completing Tasks

  1. Mike Lanza says:

    Wow. I now realize that “unstructured play” is not my ideal for kids. It’s “unmediated play”. I absolutely think it’s desirable for kids to play in structured ways, as long as they have a large role in creating the structure.

    In The Moral Judgment of the Child, Jean Piaget describes how children in early 20th Century Switzerland create and implement elaborate rules for the game of marbles. The rules are very, very structured, but the kids themselves create them, so they learn a lot. Unlike when rules are created, interpreted, and imposed entirely by adults (e.g. Little League), in the marble games, Piaget contends that children came to understand why rules are necessary, why they need to be amended or extended, and in what cases they need to be bent (e.g. what if the toddler doesn’t understand this rule?).

    Unstructured play is not an ideal because it leads nowhere. Perhaps we should say, “unstructured-by-adults.”

  2. map says:

    That’s a nice, nuanced distinction. Part of the joy and value in being given the chance to create your own spheres of play is that freedom–and responsibility–to create the structure yourself. What an empowering act–if you can take up the challenge.

    Probably not all kids are wired with structure-generating genes, and maybe those are the kids who need a little more imposed structure. Still, though, even those kids benefit in terms of imagination and pure joy from some unmediated AND unstructured time to explore.

  3. Simon Firth says:

    Unmediated, though, shouldn’t mean unwatched.

    I’m all for allowing kids to create games themselves — I’ll support Piaget’s self-generated marble games over Little League any day. But what happens when the game rules turn out like this: ‘okay, this is a secret club and to prove its value to us, let’s exclude someone and take great satisfaction from making that exclusion very clear to her’? Or ‘the aim of the game is to creep up on that boy over there, who doesn’t know we are here, but we’ve suddenly decided we don’t like, and throw pretend bombs at him and pretend shoot him, for a long time — the winner is the one who makes him cry.’

    Free social play is very different from free individual play. The worst that can happen to a kid playing alone, or in parallel, (so long as he has age-appropriate supervision) is that the child gets bored. But social play has higher stakes. Children aren’t always in control of themselves or their games and they aren’t immune to negative, aggressive feelings that unchecked, and in a group setting, can spin very quickly into situations that are painful for whomever is the chosen victim. Once they occur, these situations also have a tendency to get replayed and the consequences for the perpetrators and victims can be lifelong.

    As my kids get older I’m seeing them drawn into play situations that involve exclusion and unkindness all the time. The big question for me as a parent is when to step in. Sometimes these things resolve themselves and I’m usually happy to wait a bit to see if that will happen. The excluded girl in the example above might be resilient enough or have enough social capital to counter her exclusion by forming a rival club, say. Or the boy jumps up and fires back to everyone’s glee. But not all children have those resiliencies — and the kids who initiate such socially brutal games are usually smart enough to avoid the ones who do.

    So, when you witness a ‘bad’ play situation, do you let it play out as a learning experience for all? Many parents I know seem to be okay with that – even when they are around to keep an eye (or an ear) on the games their kids are playing.

    I’m not like that. I don’t want kids to get the message that bullying is okay — even though it works very nicely for a lots of kids as a way to win friends and influence people.

    So do I at least wait for the picked on kids to come to me (or another adult) in tears? No, because some children will rationalize their being picked on and accept it. And because if I’m there I can step in as an authority figure and show the victimized child that authority can be moral and that when it is, it watches out for people less able to fend for themselves (because they are smaller, or new in town, or have funny teeth or weird parents etc. etc.).

    So what I do is I intervene in the game, explain what is unacceptable, get agreement from the kids that the game as it’s being played is, indeed, not okay and then canvass for ideas about how to turn the game into one that isn’t about pleasure achieved through another’s pain.

    What’s interesting is how dependent these situations are on specific children entering or leaving the game. My kids regularly meet a bunch of other local kids in the park, aged 3-8. They can all be playing a co-operative gathering game, or making fairy houses or tracking unicorns together, say, in a great mob. But there’s one child who, when he arrives, invariably races in and suggests playing some kind of war game that involves picking out other children as (involuntary) candidates for attack. He is energetic and popular, rarely accompanied by a parent, and the other kids very often are immediately excited by his ideas.

    We could avoid situations like this, of course, by never going to the park and handpicking our children’s friends. But if you believe, as I do, in exposing kids to the world, you need to be able to deal with the impact that this kind of child (or any other child who has charm and very misguided ideas about how to behave towards other people) will have on your kids.

    So sure, that means building up their resiliencies and self-confidence. But it also means parenting in a way that is attentive, even when your children feel that they are playing freeing.

    A comment in another thread here makes the point that it’s vital that parents stay “closely connected to our kids so that their main orientation in life comes from us, their parents, rather than from their peers.” I think that’s right. For me, that means supporting and appreciating the value of free play. But it means watching it, too, and not being afraid to step in to redirect it when the message it is reinforcing is that bullies are always allowed to get their way and that pleasure bought at someone else’s expense is an acceptable way to lead your life.

  4. gina_moreland says:

    As a former science teacher, and wife of a physicist, I’d like to encourage parents that scientific exploration (which looks like unstructured play in childhood) frequently leaves ‘unfinished’ projects. With adult scientists, unfinished projects are sometimes left for years at a time. The child excited by exploration and finding joy in discovery is to be celebrated, encouraged, and (the challenge for most of us parents) tolerated — at least outside of school. With inquisitive and curious minds like that of the child described, some avenues inevitably lead to dead ends, but sometimes later new information comes along that makes the previously unfinished project relevant again. The skill set required here is not the forced finishing of (non-school) projects, but learning to hold the information already known and to circle back and consider the project again. Once some time has passed, parents can ask questions like has anything changed? Can we use this (unfinished project) in a new way? Can you incorporate this into something you are doing now? I’m a believer in the idea that no knowledge is wasted and I don’t believe that unstructured play leads nowhere. We just don’t know where yet!

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    Gina – yes, I went too far in saying “unstructured play leads nowhere.” I do like when kids create some structure and goals on their own, though. To take your point a bit further, I agree that kids’ play doesn’t *always* have to end up being structured with goals. Sometimes, it can end up appearing just the way it began – pure, open-minded exploration. If you start with a very clear goal and structure, it’s unlikely you’ll end up with any new creative thinking.

    I guess the best of all outcomes, from my point of view, is when kids start with pure, open-minded exploration and they end up with something that takes some new and interesting form – i.e. structure. You can’t force that, though.

  6. joan_almon says:

    This is a great discussion and reminds me of conversations we’ve had with the playworkers in the UK. They’re a playful, quirky lot who oversee children’s play and help create very playful, adventuresome play spaces. At the same time they try to wear a cloak of invisibility as much as possible so that the children can be in charge of their own play as much as possible.

    They don’t talk about unstructured play but rather describe play as being freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. This means giving the children as much freedom in play as they can handle and trying not to “adulterate” the play with an adult-driven agenda. At the same time, though, there are moments when adult intervention may be needed.

    One playworker, Penny Wilson, who offers workshops in this country, uses this rule in play sessions: Have as much fun as you can and try not to hurt yourself or anyone else. This gives lots of freedom and flexibility, but it also gives the adult the right to step in if things are getting too wild or too unsocial.

    In the Alliance for Childhood we’re developing materials about playwork and also working with universities interested in offering professional courses in playwork. Our goal is to restore play for all children. For more info see
    Joan Almon

  7. map says:

    As someone who was often bullied, I agree wholeheartedly with Simon that adults must take on the role of regulators when they see unacceptable aggression or belittling. I often felt alone when faced with two or three or ten of my peers aligned against me, and my insecurities multiplied during this time.

    In ninth grade, I attended a private school which left the students to their own devices for most of the day. After weeks of fear and constant wariness, I ended up finding a safe place to store my school supplies and to hang out between classes under the stairs in the basement of the library. A year spent in hiding may have built my character in some way, but the unregulated atmosphere left me dealing with issues that I may not have yet worked out.

    Thanks, everyone, for the fascinating discussion. This is a great way to collaboratively define some of the key terms of this site’s ongoing conversation: unstructured, unmediated, unwatched, unregulated, etc.

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    I agree that bullying is undesirable, but the important question is to what extent should parents get involved to prevent bullying. I would argue that total parent mediation, as we have in Little League, is too great a price to pay to prevent bullying.

    Should parents be present or not? If they’re present, should they watch all the time, or should they just be within earshot? If they’re not present, how do they deal with complaints from children?

    I’m bewildered by the choices here – as I said, my oldest is four, so I’ve yet to encounter this. My gut is to let them play away from me until I hear about problems, then get progressively closer to the situation as the problems don’t get resolved. Simon already knows of problems, so that’s why he’s in the thick of the action (the young ages of some of the kids is another reason, undoubtedly).

  9. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — I guess this is why we parents get paid the big bucks for parenting. It’s a tough thing to know when to hover, when to back off, when to let your child out of your sight. Obviously it’s utterly dependent on the age and the temperament/maturity of your child, who their friends are, how many kids there are in a particular situation and what *their* temperaments are etc.. And it’s a moving target, like everything else in parenting. As your kids learn new skills, you need to adapt with them.

    But I think it’s quite common for parents to underestimate the developmental impact that social play can have on children of elementary age. And that, I think, lets them feel that when it comes to groups of kids playing together, so long as no-one is bleeding, all’s well. So they’re comfortable tuning out the specific games the kids are playing — even when children right next to them are loudly planning to pick on a particular kid and exclude her from their game, for example.

    Parents also underestimate the way in which social games are classrooms for kids. Kids don’t enter social play knowing the rules. They are using it to work out the rules. If left to follow their own course, they can produce a co-operative nirvana, sure, but just as easily they descend into something out of Lord of the Flies (where kids murder kids, remember!).

    To cede all that learning to a classroom run by kids, to my mind, is irresponsible. But it’s what a lot of us do — while we work with our elementary age kids endlessly on math and reading at home, we spend very little time talking with them about, observing, or being interested in, their world of social play.

    And, at this age, I don’t think it’s enough to passively wait to hear about problems. Children notoriously under-report bullying to their parents, for example. And what if your child is the bully? As kids experiment with social play they can take on either role and you need to be there to know if they are doing it within a context that is healthy (playing out dominant and submissive roles, for example) or not (classic mean-girl or -boy behavior).

    So what should we be doing? Partly it’s about offering exemplary behavior in the way we treat each other and our children at home. And that, we hope, will give them some default ideas about fairness and kindness (or call it moral fiber) to use in their un-mediated game play.

    And we need to work with our elementary schools to try to ensure that they support the same messages that we push at home. There’s a lot of good work available on bullying these days and one of the core tenants of modern bullying prevention programs is that bullying starts with children accepting as normative behavior from peers that is mean but not yet endemic. With a little effort, schools can push against that casual meanness very successfully and create an atmosphere that offers bullies very little social traction.

    But the last component, for me, is to be actively interested in my children at play. That doesn’t mean spying or never letting my kids out of my sight. Instead, it’s about actively developing that parenting sixth sense that with younger kids has you always keeping a mental note of where exactly they are in relation to you. But now you want to be able to pick up on the signals that their play — even if it has them running around the block out of your sight for a while — hasn’t descended into something that is hurtful, to quote Joan above.

    In a way just caring about this is the biggest thing. Children pick up on what adults care about very quickly — I’m very happy to be known as a caring, present adult at the park. They know I won’t tolerate deliberate unkindness, but I think they’re happy to know that when I’m there (or any other parent who also actively cares about social play), it’s an emotionally safer place to play.

  10. Mike Lanza says:

    OK, now that I think about this, I realize I do have some personal experience with this issue, and I have a recommendation that runs a bit counter to Simon’s.

    My 4-year-old son Marco is sometimes a selfish bully – i.e. he occasionally takes things away from other kids or forcibly keeps other kids from trying to grasp something that he views as his (think basketball center who pulls down a rebound and swings the ball and his elbows around violently).

    He and I have been working on mitigating this behavior for over a year now. I’m now fairly convinced that he won’t actually hurt the other kid, so he’s learned about not hurting kids as he’s being selfish, but he still works very hard to hold the object in question and keep it from the other kid.

    I’ve decided to stop watching him all the time in situations where a sharing conflict is likely because he behaves as I want him to when I watch without thinking about it. He only seems to experiment with new approaches to working out his selfishness impulse when (he thinks) I’m not watching.

    In other words, my trying to prevent all selfish behavior as it’s happening is a mere band-aid. What Marco needs to do, and what I believe he *is* starting to do on his own, is to think about the other kid’s feelings, not mine, the all-powerful and respected parent.

    Yes, he may hurt the other kid’s feelings and make that kid cry when he acts selfish, but only as he begins to listen to those other kids and care a bit about them will he figure out a deep understanding of why sharing is a good thing.