The Case for Unstructured Play and Its Connection to Better Health

The preschool classroom is filled with open-ended materials. There are crayons, feathers, pipe cleaners, large cardboard boxes, and more. Children are engaged in play; some create houses, and others team up to make a store. Jordan has chosen to build a car. He cuts, pastes, and then dashes away to the block corner. Jordan returns with a small wooden block and places it inside his car. I can hardly wait for him to explain. “What did you just put inside the car?” his friend asks. Jordan smiles and says, “It’s a battery. Everyone knows a car can’t run without a battery!”

—The Duckling Class

Play has been receiving some long-overdue attention in recent months. Major media are abuzz discussing the benefits of play, the consequences of its removal, and how parents and communities can work to actively restore play for their children. CNN, NPR, The New York Times, Parents Magazine, Time Magazine, and The New Yorker are just a few of the news outlets who have begun to address the many dimensions and issues the play movement currently faces (1, 2, 3, 5, 6).

Research compiled on play highlights its role in supporting cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development; strengthening creativity and academic achievement; and relieving the symptoms of attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, and potentially debilitating health conditions like obesity and diabetes. These are just a sample of the related benefits of play (7). When one examines the benefits of play holistically, it seems we have been granted a magical gift, and people are now taking notice.

Thankfully, parents and caregivers have expressed a renewed interest in preserving children’s opportunities to play, along with a clearer understanding of the importance of play. Sarah Brown of Houston, Texas, has championed advocacy efforts to increase her children’s recess from 15 minutes a day to at least 30; Molly Luna of Mountlake Terrace, Wash. worked to secure a $50,000 grant to build a safe playground for the children in her community to play; and Liza Sullivan of Winnetka, Ill took up the “Park a Day” challenge, taking her children to 50 different parks over the course of their summer vacation. These examples are both inspiring and indicative of positive parental involvement in children’s play; however, the reality is that they remain the exceptions rather than the rule.

The unfortunate truth is that many of us have taken the leap from protecting that which we deem important, to attempting to control it with a specific purpose in mind. For every family that has turned its basement into a creative play space or encourages its kids to play outdoors independently, there are countless people who consider play something that they must organize for their children. I frequently encounter parents who are adamant that they encourage their kids to play. “They’re on the soccer team; they have tons of video games; and of course, there’s little league, too,” they declare.

While a level of playfulness comes from team sports and certain electronic media, in truth they are heavily influenced by adult constructs and rules. Organized sports are often touted as promoting social skills and physical and mental health, and video games are said to sharpen hand-eye coordination along with critical thinking skills (8, 9, 10). Yet these are all things that would occur naturally if children were left to their own devices and allowed time to play and explore on their own.

Play, by definition, is something that is freely chosen, child directed, and intrinsically motivated (11). This, in essence, translates to the fact that children are truly at play only when they have selected what and how they would like to engage in an activity. Many adults, both consciously and unconsciously, try to turn every waking moment of the day into a learning activity where they shepherd and guide their children. If a child is digging in the dirt and an adult interjects and begins talking about how seeds grow and develop, an opportunity for that child to focus on her current activity is lost. She may have been engaged in discovering the consistency of the soil, how it is made of pebbles, sand, and bits of matter.  Or perhaps she may have just wanted to know what dirt tasted like! Children may not always have the vocabulary to express what they are doing, but it does not diminish the importance of the experience.

The recent New York Times article “The Movement to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum” notes how widespread the problem has become as well-meaning parents are consumed with enrolling their children in organized sports, and scheduling lessons designed to beef up college applications, all while unwittingly raising the “enrichment hysteria” to new heights (3). Furthering the need to rethink this enrichment approach, proponents of play-based curricula have argued that instead of drilling flashcards, we should allow our children time to play and develop the critical skills needed not only in the here and now, but to succeed in college and beyond (1).

I applaud those of you who have decided to take a stand in support of play, but I caution that there is a fine line between taking a stand and standing in the way. Children will always need support from caring adults, so we must challenge ourselves to remember that sometimes support means giving them room to be kids. Perhaps it’s time we took a cue from our children, slowed down, and appreciated the merits of play for play’s sake. I am addressing you as advocates of children’s healthy development and—on a much more fundamental level—as parents, family members, and concerned citizens. We must not only advocate for others to do right by our children but make sure we are taking the steps to practice what we preach. So as 2011 kicks into high gear, we should all resolve to take a little time out of our busy lives to play spontaneously. I promise it will be worth it!


1. Christakis, E., & Christakis, N. (2010, December 29). Want to get your kids into college? Let them play. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from
2. Abramson, L. (2010, October 1). Entrepreneur’s local partnerships help kids play. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from
3. Stout, H. (2011, January 5). The movement to restore children’s play gains momentum. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from
4. Thomas, S. G. (2010, July 1). A playground for every child: How some people are making it happen. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from
5. Barovick, H. (2010, August 9). Building a better playground. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from,9171,2007398,00.html.
6.  Mead, R. (2010, July 5). State of play: How tot lots became places to build children’s brains. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from
7. Ginsberg, K. (2007, January). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–190. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2697.
8. Steiner, H. (2000, March). Adolescents and sports: Risk or benefit? Clinical Pediatrics, 39(3), 161–166. doi: 10.1177/000992280003900304.
9. Leek, D., Carlson, J.A., Cain, K.L., Henrichon, S., Rosenberg, D., Patrick, K., et al. (2010, December 6). Physical activity during youth sports practices. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.252.
10. Griffiths, M. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames. Education and Health, 20(3), 47–51. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from
11.  Hughes, B. (1982). Play a definition by synthesis. Lancaster, United Kingdom: PlayEducation.


As a leading nonprofit health care research and consulting institute dedicated to improving human health, Altarum encourages open discussion and debate about the many challenges in health care today. All postings to the Health Policy Forum (whether from employees or those outside the Institute) represent the views of the individual authors and/or organizations and do not necessarily represent the position, interests, strategy, or opinions of Altarum Institute. Altarum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. No posting should be considered an endorsement by Altarum of individual candidates, political parties, opinions, or policy positions. Read more.

5 Responses to The Case for Unstructured Play and Its Connection to Better Health

  1. Applause, applause! We should all take up the glad chant: “Get out of their way and let them play!”

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  2. Hello Danielle, interesting article. We have a similar situation here in the UK. Play does not feature highly on the political agenda and a recent government announcement revealed there will be no play funding from central governement in the near future.

    I would take some issue with your definition of “structured” play however. I absolutely agree that play should be holistic, equally incorporating outdoor/home/fixed structure play but ‘structure’ does not necessarily denote “bad” play. Many of our members produce what is sometimes termed as prescriptive play items such as swings, slides etc. this means they have a singular use, these are great for general play parks where kids play now and again, but they also create non-prescriptive equipment that children can create their own games around and other park schemes incorporate natural features into their design such as trees and hills, giving children greater variety in their play.

    My point is this: all kinds of play are of significant benefit to children’s health, sometimes structure is good. Our role as stakeholders in play and children’s health is striking a balance between the two.

  3. Wendy and Adam thank you both for your replies!

    @Adam what may not have been abundantly clear in my latest post is that I am a huge proponent of ALL types of play and believe that a healthy balance must be achieved. So while I called out few types of structured play specifically I do not advocate for their removal from children’s lives, rather I would hope people understand moderation is key. I am simply offering my perspective on the state of play in the U.S. Currently its seems as if structured activities are accepted as the norm in this country whereas, in the case of unstructured play parents, educators, etc. are constantly waging a war to help others see its merits. There is nothing wrong with providing your child an opportunity to be part of a team or engage in other more structures activities, but the discussion needs to be framed in such a way that parents no longer feel their children NEED to participate in these activities in order to achieve success!

    • Ah, I understand much better now. I think that’s a good point you raise towards the end of your reply as to the ends and means of play. Should we encourage play solely for itself and the benefits it brings to children or should our aim focus more on the end results of play leading into adulthood? Children who play are more likely to play sport and exercise into adulthood, concentrate in lessons and so become educated and probably get better jobs

      Also, I think you’re right that there needs to be time allocated to free unstructured play (in schools?) for children to play in a non-goal orientated way and that in turn breeds creativity.

      How are things in the US regarding central funding for play?

      Thank you for the chat!

  4. Excellent article. I definitely agree child play should be left to the children. The only grown-up voice a child should hear during play is the one calling him/her in for dinner.

Leave a Comment

(In order to leave a comment, you must supply information for all of the required fields below)


Note: Comments are subject to approval and moderation. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. Thanks for joining the conversation.

Director of Community Engagement, KaBOOM!