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  • Writer's pictureRifke Hill

The Nature School: Encouraging Unstructured Play

Unstructured play happens all day long in the animal world… but it’s growing less common in ours, and this is a loss that has weighty consequences.

I love watching baby animals play. Lambs skipping gracefully around each other, calves bawling and head-butting, puppies rolling in dusty heaps and chicks awkwardly scrambling and fluttering their new feathers… it’s adorable. Human unstructured play is similar, if more complex: kids pushing toy trucks around with all the complementary sound effects, or hosting an impromptu tea party for an array of dolls and fluffy toys, or tirelessly testing their limits on outdoor toys like jungle gyms and swing sets. Unstructured play is open-ended play: there are no adults to give directions – only supervise, and no pre-ordained goals.

In the animal kingdom, unstructured play helps young creatures develop the skills they’ll need to survive and reproduce. In our species, it may have different benefits, but it’s just as vital.

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Here’s what unstructured play does for kids.

It develops the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for problem solving, logical thinking, organizing, and all the other “mind over matter” skills. Kids refine these abilities when they get to test out their own ideas and draw their own conclusions in games without pre-determined goals, where the consequences are fun and harmless.

It develops the brain prefrontal cortex

It’s a hotbed for creativity. When no-one’s telling kids what to do, the only games they’re going to play are the ones they can invent… imagination’s the limit. Being creative and imaginative is not only essential to being able digest all the theoretical, non-visible information that’s a vital working part of our modern world… it’s also a gift which contributes to success later on in life.

A hotbed for creativity

It improves social skills. Kids playing their own games invent and discover together. They feed off each other’s ideas. They learn to share, agree, help out and take turns to make games work. Practicing these social skills in the fun setting of play brings the benefits home, and strengthens that effort and rewards connection.

It improves social skills

Kids learn about themselves. When they get the opportunity to experiment, children can figure out what toys, games and game styles they enjoy, and what they don’t. They can test and expand their physical and problem-solving limits, and revel in the sense of freedom… no failure imminent.

Kids learn about themselves

Here are our favorite unstructured play classics.

These timeless ideas will kick-start your unstructured play adventure.

  • Gardening free play: invest in a child gardening set, and give them their own patch of garden to plant, water and dig around in with their child-sized gardening tools. Here’s a gallery of easy plants for kids to grow.

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  • Build a kid’s garden: kit it out with garden toys like swings, climbing sets, scooters, a sand pit and a shallow, covered pool. Here’s some inspiration for garden games for kids.

  • Stock up on imaginary play, eco friendly kids’ toys: fill their toy shelves with wooden, fabric or recycled dolls, cars, trucks, miniature furniture, trains, building sets… you get the picture. Start them off by joining in during play time and demonstrating what’s possible. Earth Hero and Green Toys offer a wonderfully fun range of eco toys.

  • Have a creativity box: this diy idea is timeless free play fun – and the opportunities for fine motor activities for kids are endless. Fill a large box with paper, carboard boxes, toilet rolls, paint, buttons, glue, egg cartons, plastic bottles, and anything else they could possibly create with. Dress your kids in old clothes, roll out an worn blanket or lay it all out on the porch, and let their creativity go wild.

The Nature School: Encouraging Unstructured Play

Written by Rifke Hill


About the Author

Rifke Hill was raised on the sort of farm your grandparents told tales about – milking cows, gathering eggs, hoeing the soil, and building fires to heat water. She now spends part of her time copywriting online as a freelancer. The rest of it is spent nurturing and teaching her four energetic children, growing vegetables, baking bread, reading voraciously, having coffee with the neighbors, and enjoying the sunny slopes of the smallholding where she lives, in the Garden Route, South Africa.

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