Unstructured Play Is Dead

unstructured playI’ll be honest. I have no idea what unstructured play means. When I was a child in the 80s, I would ride my bike down the street to my friends’ houses. I could actually hear my mother call me in for dinner. I guess that was unstructured play, in the sense that my friends and I had no plans really and our parents let us be. But HELLO! –  It’s 2013!

Every time I read the news (including on Mommyish) there are stories about rape, kidnapping, drugs, and shootings. So, will I let my 9-year-old play outside, or even with a friend outside alone? Absolutely not. I’m not an over-protective helicopter parent by any means. But people do not stop at stop signs in my area and most people still text and drive and I could never forgive myself if “unstructured play” lead to an accident or death of my child.

She can walk to a friend’s house when she gets a phone and that’s not happening just yet. In a previous piece, people were all over my ass for “over-scheduling” my daughter. Maybe she is overscheduled – to you. This is also, I suppose, “structured play.” But I know my daughter better and being part of a play, singing in concerts, and dancing are her loves. For her, it IS play. Never once in her life has she said, “I’m bored.” She has friends and has made new friends in these “structured” activities. So I’m sorry. The way I see it for my kid and all her friends, “unstructured play” is extinct, gone the way of the dinosaur.

I find it ironic that from the time your baby is born, people will tell you they need “routines, routines, routines” and that “routines, routines, routines” are good. Then, suddenly, one day, people are telling you that children need “unstructured play” which is the complete opposite of routine. So which is it? Even by scheduling in “unstructured play” makes it not structured at all. Or does it?

Usually on Saturday afternoons, my daughter has a playdate. I’m not the type of mother who hangs around during playdates. I stay out of their way when they hang out in my daughter’s bedroom. I keep an ear open, but I do not participate. Is that unstructured play? I suppose so, if you consider 9-year-olds playing on iPads, ordering movies, or watching YouTube videos of Justin Bieber to be unstructured play. Last time during her “unstructured play” my daughter and her friend Googled Justin Bieber’s phone number and they were so excited to tell me that they called him 10 times. When I asked to see the number, of COURSE, it was a long distance number. Can’t wait to get that bill!

Because children, or at least my daughter’s friends, don’t have “unstructured play” (all her friends take lessons, have tutors, ski lessons, etc.) not one of these kids actually knows – like me – what unstructured play means. If I told my daughter to “go have some unstructured play!” she’d look at me as if I’d just asked her to multiple 176×28 in her head.


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You can reach this post's author, Rebecca Eckler, on twitter.
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  • Sarah

    Your daughter doesn’t play with barbies, have tea parties, draw when she feels like it, or play make believe? Aren’t all of those activities unstructured play? Isn’t any spontaneous play unstructured? While I took dance and music lessons growing up, my play dates usually involved swing sets, doll playing, acting out little skits, or dress up. Even as a pre-teen and young teenager, I mostly remember watching movies, playing with our hair, going for walks, or mostly just talking. I think kids need to learn to entertain themselves! Do you schedule activities into every moment of your child’s play dates?

    • Yves

      yes all of this describes my childhood ;) And it was a pretty good one!

  • CMJ

    I think there is a difference between having a routine for your child (lunch at 11am, nap at 12:30, bed time at…etc) and letting them just “play.” It can even be a simple as – “Mom, I am going to go color for a bit.” “Ok!”

    I also think unstructured play means just let kids play! (I feel dumb for even having to say that) Don’t make them have an educational activity every second of their lives. Children learn a great deal in their early years just playing and interacting with other children/people without having a flashcard crammed in their faces. A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing.

  • Sara

    Unstructured play isn’t the same thing as leaving kids unsupervised in situations where they shouldn’t be. When I was a kid, my parents were home most of the time, but they didn’t tell us what to do with our time or keep us entertained 24/7–after homework and chores were done, and the piano was practiced, it was up to us to figure out how to entertain ourselves. I was in one structured activity outside of school–I had a weekly piano lesson and I was expected to practice every day. Other than that, if we were bored we could read a book, play in the backyard, do an art project, call a friend, whatever. If we complained to our parents about being bored, they would find plenty of things for us to do–mainly consisting of cleaning the garage or picking up leaves. We learned quickly that a) it was NOT our parents’ responsibility to keep us entertained and b) it was better for us to find something to occupy ourselves unless we wanted to end up grouting the floors. Honestly, after we got home from school, did our homework and finished our chores, there usually wasn’t a whole ton of time left over in which we could have gotten into trouble. But maybe part of the problem is that I’m increasingly getting the sense that “kids doing chores” is also dead. Another valuable experience that seems to be falling by the wayside?

    I see “unstructured play”–the process of kids having to figure out how to entertain themselves without being scheduled every minute–as a valuable skill that teaches creativity and self-reliance, not to mention social skills (when you can’t run to Mommy every time there’s a disagreement over the rules of a game, you have to figure out how to work with others unless you want to end up with no friends.) But it’s not the same thing as leaving your kids unsupervised. We were rarely unsupervised, but there was a parent IN THE HOUSE, not standing over us or interacting with us every minute. I think that would have driven everyone–kids AND parents–crazy.

    • Sara

      Actually, scratch that–I was in TWO structured activities. One music-related and one physical-activity related (either dance or swim team). We also had Hebrew school two afternoons a week after school, so now that I think about it, we did actually have a structured activity more days than not. However, we still had a fair amount of time on our hands that was ours to figure out what to do with, and that’s where the unstructured play happened.

    • Lori B.

      When I was a manager in retail, I always told my staff that there are two people you never tell when you are bored (either out loud or with your body language): your mother and your boss, because both of them will be sure to keep you busy doing something unpleasant. Your comment reminded me of tat when your parents would make you clean out the garage if you told them you were “bored.”

    • TheLoweDown

      Well said Sara and chickadee. The author obviously does not know the definition of independent play. If I were going to write an article I would try to understand the elementary facts about the topic before I would presume to portray myself as an expert on the topic and offer advice to others. Just goes to show you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet! If you do, I have a bridge to sell you for a really great price. It’s a steal!
      My definition of Ms. Eckler: Idiot.

  • lilacorchid

    “I’m not an over-protective helicopter parent by any means.”

    The fact that you won’t let your kid walk down the street in your own neighbourhood without fearing rapists or shootings tells me you are over-protective.

    • Monica

      Do you have her home address? If not, you might want to be careful where you throw labels. I don’t know a single parent who can’t think up situations where they would not feel comfortable letting their kids walk down the street. Those situations may or may not be where they live.

    • lilacorchid

      There is a difference between “not comfortable” and “over-protective”.

    • StephKay

      She’s actually mentioned where she lives multiple times.

  • CMJ

    Also – am I the only one that thinks it’s strange that a child isn’t allowed to “walk down the street” or play outside alone but they ARE allowed to be unsupervised with access to the Internet and a phone…where they called a random phone number?

    • Sara

      No, I agree. I think there’s a lot more potential danger in a kid having unsupervised access to the Internet and long-distance phone–and the time to call that same, unknown number, which can probably be traced–TEN TIMES.

      This is why, when I was a kid, the family computer was out in the living room. Laptops weren’t really a thing yet–it was the early to mid 90s–but if they had been, I seriously doubt my parents would have bought me one and let me have unfettered, unsupervised access to it with an Internet connection. That presents just as much danger, as far as I’m concerned, as walking down the street to a friend’s house. Probably more, depending on where you live.

  • chickadee

    Unstructured play is not the same thing as abdicating responsibility for your child. Unstructured play can be as basic as playing with Legos on her own, or playing in the garden with friends. If your daughter is not permitted any agency in her own life and if she is not asked to entertain herself, she may not be able to develop any internal resources and she may be hampered cognitively.

    I think you have misunderstood what unstructured play means.

    • Amanda


    • Amy

      I think you got it with this post. Would it really have been that difficult for the author to google “unstructured play”? I mean, she still could have written the article about the benefits of scheduled play vs. unscheduled… but this seems like she is intentionally trying to come off as ignorant.

    • TheLoweDown

      Yes. great point Amy. Google, Bing, whatever. there are too many tools out there to remain so ignorant on a simple topic. I wonder whether the author knows anything at all about early childhood development. If we were going to write an article we would sure know the definition of the topic first, right? At least that’s what all of my writing teachers told us. Write about what you KNOW. Basic definition of your topic is a part of the KNOWING. Definition of Ms. Eckler: Ignorant. May the Lord have mercy on her children and step children.

    • http://twitter.com/DecaturFlora Flora

      chickadee, you are spot on– I run a child care facility and we are in high demand because we have unstructured play. I mean, we’ll schedule basketball, but after one round they just have free play in the gym. They’ve made up about five different games! Way better than only knowing how to play basketball!

    • TheLoweDown

      Well said chickadee. Ms. Eckler is obviously unaware of the definition of unstructured play and independent play although I’m sure her children and step children have engaged in these far more times than she would care to admit! The corporate world is full of micromanagers and I’m sure many parents do the same without realizing it! We all want to cherish the precious moments we have with our children, but let’s not stifle them. Let them breath and be free sometimes and enjoy life and learn and discover their worlds (under supervision or course, but we don’t have to be on top of them every moment of every day!) Imagine how we would feel as adults if we had someone breathing down our backs every waking moment! Give the kids a break! We need it and they do too.

  • Myriam

    Statistically speaking, the crime rate generally is lower now that it used to be, but with the media, we just hear about it more! Most abductions and violence a child suffers will be at the hands of a relative or someone he knows. Stranger abductions are RARE! I’m not talking about you personaly, but I hope I can educate my daughter to be mindful of her environment (stop on street corners, pay attention to traffic, be polite with strangers but do not get in a car with them or let them lead you away from your friends) so that she can go play outside on her own!

  • K.

    To some extent, it depends on the age of your kid and where you live. I grew up in a huge city and you can bet that there wasn’t “unstructured play” in the manner you are talking about–it wouldn’t have been safe for me to ride my bike around the neighborhood or walk to the park alone (or even with friends the same age). But not everyone grows up in a big metropolitan area and I’m sure there are towns where kids still do run from porch to porch and all that.

    Rebecca, I might be on your side with this one (!) because I personally don’t think that putting your kid into activities–even lots of them, everyday–isn’t harmful, so long as they enjoy themselves. You’re right. Ballet class and art class and soccer practice and whatever other activities kids are into these days (Slavic drumming, perhpas?) are enriching, social, and they DO involve “play.” I think that if you have the money to put your kid in those activities, then that’s a great gift to them. And while I believe (of course) in “unstructured play” as in kids just hanging out and playing, I’m not a subscriber to the philosophy that there’s a danger to “overscheduling,” so long as it coexists with some “unstructured play” (or maybe “freetime” is what you mean?), and your kid is happy overall.

  • Marian

    Unstructuredplay isn’t the same as unsupervised play. It just means that the child (or children) are in control of it. It is also called ‘spontaneous play’ and is just when a child or group of children entertain themselves.

  • Tinyfaeri

    Unstructured play is just what it sounds like, a child doing something that is not directed by an adult (giving them a bunch of paper or a cardboard box and some art supplies and saying go at it vs. sending them to a how-to drawing class). It’s something to help with a child’s creativity, to help them amuse themselves and use their imaginations. It’s not an unsupervised, adult-free orgy in a crack den, or handing them $5 and telling them to go play in traffic. It’s also not something that should involve google or an iPad (which do not encourage a young child to think for his or herself), but that could just be me.

    • Sara

      No, I agree with you here. I think a huge component of unstructured play is that it should be “unplugged”. I love technology as much as the next person, but kids need to be able to entertain themselves doing something that doesn’t involve sitting on the couch playing video games or chatting on Facebook. By and large, passive, electronic diversions don’t offer the creativity, resourcefulness and people skills that kids need to develop. That’s not to say that electronics don’t have a place, but they shouldn’t be a part of unstructured play, or at least they shouldn’t play more than a minimal role.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alice.longworth.7 Alice Longworth

    I think that most have said it but yeah, you seem cluelesss (or are playing dumb) on unstructured play. Certainly if you live somewhere that is not safe for outside play that is limiting but, even before I began to roam more widely, it was my choice if I’d ride my tricycle up & down the driveway, swing (in a fenced backyard), play dolls, blocks, color, or use playdough. TV was limited so not an optionin the decisions preventing my vegetating rather than playing.

    Of course how much structure varies with one’s geography, one’s child (your child loves dance,I HATED group activities) and the times. However, if telling your child that she is being allowed/required to entertain herself and the result is puzzled looks, I’d be concerned. Also, you seem to put extraordinary faith in hobbies as trouble preventatives while demonizing a child’s own interests. I concur it is good to encourage a child in bpoth new and positive activities, but I can assure you that I, left to my own devices, was not distributing either BJs or crack. And I feel pretty confident that somewhere out there are star soccer players, dynamic cheerleaders, and multi-activity teens who are providing just those services. And no, it is not old school. Maybe not right for your family, but still a viable, and even a much enjoyed option

    • Guest

      Interestingly enough, my man was a star soccer player. Year round, recruited as a freshman….Ended up with a drug problem…so, yeah…I don’t get the crack and BJ’s thing either.

    • StephKay

      Yeah, that’s actually a really terrible stigma she’s perpetuating there. The idea that good kids who are kept busy don’t get in trouble. I came from an upper middle class family, I took guitar lessons, swimming lesson, Hebrew school twice a week, ballet as a little girl, read constantly, was in the gifted class etc… I’m also in recovery and spent a few years getting really well acquainted with heroin withdrawal. My sister was a far more typical kid, who was raised on welfare with a single mom before she remarried, with tons of independent play time and she’s totally fine. There’s no such thing as an inherently troubled child, just children dealing with troubling situations. It’s actually quite classist to envision the kid without dance classes left to roam urban environments as being a step away from “crack and BJs”.

  • Lori B.

    I don’t think “unstructured play is dead,” but it is different now than when we were kids. I don’t often see kids picking up a game of wiffle ball (or street hockey or basketball) in the middle of the street these days yelling “car” and parting to allow it to pass. I distinctly remember my brother and his friends doing this when we were younger. I am sure, however, that where neighborhood friends exist, children will still walk to each other’s houses to have “unstructured play” where they play with their matchbox cars or play house or barbies. Where this has changed, at least in my personal experience kind of relates to another article posted yesterday about making “mom friends” is that we no longer rely on our location to determine our friends. We make friends at work or school and keep those friends for years. The bond probably had a bit to do with geography, but could still mean that some of our best friends live in towns that are by no means walking distance for an adult, let alone a child. We are relegated to these “play-dates,” a term which I never heard as a child. So the scheduling part is structured because the children have to driven with their parents to another house a town or two away. Until school begins, a child’s friends are very likely not the kids in their neighborhood.

    Also, “unstructured play” can very well occur while a child is alone under adult supervision. Are we really on top of our children so much that they never have any free time with which to do what they please? My three year old can walk around the house with a flashlight and have unstructured play. She can play in her room with her barbie dolls on the weekends while I am doing chores around the house. I have to say sometimes I feel guilty about not being able to play with my daughter all weekend, especially when we don’t get to spend much time together during the week, but when I see her imagination at work, it makes me realize that it is worth it to allow her time to jut play and be a kid.

    • amanda

      I think this is true, although I Am so proud to live in a house that although to small for my family (or at least it feels that way) we are in a neighborhood where do have friends, Were my kids play with all the neighborhood kids, and yes I ‘ve hollered out the front door to call them home for dinner.

  • Mary Sue

    Listen, Im glad your 13 year old is not using crack or giving out blowjobs yet, but don’t grow complacent just because you don’t think she has the time (or that your younger child will have the time in the future). I was very scheduled and did many activities in high school – still found time to have sex and smoke pot. I had to work harder for it, but I made it happen.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alice.longworth.7 Alice Longworth

      Never underestimate the ingenuity of a horny teen. ;)

  • Stef

    Sorry…is this supposed to be terrifyingly ironic? Because if so, WELL PLAYED, Rebecca Eckler. If not, someone shake some sense into our society. And Rebecca Eckler.

  • Yves

    Unstructured play means playing on their own without adults “structuring” it. They can do it at home…doesn’t necessarily walking the streets. You also sound kind of defensive and self-righteous. And newsflash, kids in sports tend to actually be the ones that party harder…or at least party since they tend to be more of the popular kids. Please come down off your horse and open your eyes.

  • Diana

    I’m sorry but the headline is a stupid statement. my kids play on their own all the time. Most of the time actually. Same goes for my friend’s kids.

  • LaBamba

    Why are all of your posts so defensive? Own what you’ve written and don’t let every subsequent post be some sort of defense against those who have gotten “on your ass” about things you’ve written before. Is it just me or is Rebecca Eckler a bit of a spin on “Girl at the Party You Wish You Never Started a Conversation With”?

  • AP

    I think the author is placing FAR too much trust in the ability of structured programs to keep children safe. I spent a good bit of time working in these programs, and while the kids were generally safe, even the best supervised program gave kids opportunities to engage in sexual activity or harassment, bullying, and even use drugs or alcohol. Programs don’t have a 1:1 ratio, so there are supervision blind spots; programs have bathrooms and stairwells and supply closets; and the TSA does not search kids before Vacation Camp, so lord knows what they’re bringing in with them.

  • angiedb

    This makes me sad. When it’s warm enough, I shoo my kids outside for lots and lots of unstructured play. I REFUSE to be a victim of the media and their worst-first thinking. Statistically, things are not worse these days, but since we get any and all information in a heartbeat it is then pounded into our consciousness minute by minute and hour by hour. I also refuse to be so busy that my kids can’t have unstructured play. Each of my kids has ONE extracurricular activity. I will not over schedule them or over burden them. Their education is first along with having a memorable childhood filled with memories of care-free play!

  • alex

    Yeah, I’m 16, and I write for the school newspaper, run track and cross country, take SAT prep every week and am a president of Feminist Society and I still find plenty of time to give blow jobs. Structuring your kids won’t stop them from doing drugs or having sex.

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  • Carly

    I always thought this particular blogger wrote stuff deliberately trying to get people riled up. This particular blog posting confirms my thoughts as far as I’m concerned. I don’t believe Ms. Eckler even believes half of what she wrote here. She just wants to get the mommies squawking and arguing. Unstructured play is dead? Oke doke.

  • Freela

    This strikes me as kind of sad. There’s nothing wrong with organized activities, but unstructured time doesn’t mean abdicating parental responsibilities and letting the kids run off to smoke crack at the park. I have three kids, and much of their play is unstructured- and it’s great! The three of them will go off and role play various games together- great dramatic play, they have to compromise, and I end up seeing how charmingly imaginative they are at incorporating each other’s interests into the same imaginary universe (having Optimus Prime battle the evil My Little Ponies with the assistance of Perry the Platypus is a regular occurence!) The three kids are all working on their respective comic books- it’s usual to see them at the table together, drawing little cartoon panels and reading each other’s work aloud. It’s good to give kids the ability to ‘make their own fun.’ I know several kids who are instantly whining, “I’m bored!” as soon as there is no one there to direct them in an activity, and that strikes me as sad. I worry that they are going to feel chronically unsatisfied and will not be able to make their own fun- which is a real loss! And I can’t help but feel that always following someone else’s lead isn’t going to promote much independent thought and ability to stand on their own two feet later on in life either.

  • Corrina

    Rebecca, I just read four or five of your articles. And I have no idea who you are or who you want to be or even who I think you want me to think you are. If the articles didn’t bare your name, I would assume they were written by four or five different authors. Are you the cool, easy going, free range mom? Are you a horny seventeen year old who doesn’t know the difference between sex and love? Are you a lazy, convenience parent who doesn’t care about how her behavior affects others? Are you the strict, rigid mother who vicariously lives through her child and won’t rest until her kid is in an Ivy League school?? I have no idea. And I suspect you don’t either. The bottom line is that your waffling and ever changing voice makes me think all your content is bullshit. I imagine in reality you’re probably a pretty regular mom who feels great about some of her choices and other times feels the need to justify her lazy parenting by labeling it ‘cool’. Either way, I’ve just wasted thirty minutes of my life on your blabbering. I hope your writing isn’t an accurate portrayal of who you are as a mother. For the sake of your children. You’ll let your nine year old watch horror movies and have unsupervised access to the internet but you won’t let her play outside??? This will not serve you or her well in the long run. Hold yourself to a higher standard, Rebecca. Your daughter deserves it.

  • everybodyonly

    “I’m bored”….you have never heard that?Then yes, you should examine your parenting style. Life does not constantly present us with entertainment, challenges or even entanglements. Learning to be “alone” is a skill that will ensure that you child never clings on to the wrong person. And being “bored” is a great springing off place for find your own way to have fun. I live outside NYC…in a very social, very busy community. My daughter is 8, when she is “bored” , and I had nowhere near the social life she has,she draws, writes plays, or songs…..We are all bored, almost everyday of our lives, and then we can have years that we run on adrenaline…it is teaching kids how to deal with the doldrums without having to reach for the :phone, drink, drug…that will guide them. Only people who are truly at peace can survive short amounts of solitude.