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.


Scheduling my daughter in activities she loves also gives me a sense of relief. At all her activities, there is a lot of laughter, and, best of all, there is an adult supervising, so I don’t have to worry. If she’s in a structured activity, she’s not doing drugs. I really believe scheduling activities keeps, and will keep, kids off crack. I really do believe that if your child has an interest or hobby or activity they love, it will keep them out of trouble.

My eldest stepdaughter, who is 13, tells me what 13 year-old girls do, the ones who are left with “unstructured play.” She hasn’t actually mentioned anything about crack, but I have heard a lot of stories from her about girls her age giving blow jobs. However, my stepdaughter is a high-level soccer player who practices sometimes four times a week. She loves it. And THAT is structured. And, she isn’t doing crack OR giving blow jobs.

I live in a big city where every imaginable activity is available for children. So why not take advantage of these programs? They can actually learn and have a hobby that keeps them busy and out of trouble hopefully the rest of their lives — or least gives them an advantage.

So, yes, there is no “unstructured play” in my life, because we are actually too busy with structure to schedule in unstructured play. I think that’s what it is. Because I still don’t know what people mean these days about the importance of unstructured play in the year 2013.

Unstructured play? HA! That’s like my grandfather saying to me,”When I was a child, I used to have to walk two miles to get to school.” Unstructured play is just…so old school. In fact, I COULD tell my daughter, “When I was your age, I used to ride my bike all by myself to the store,” and she’d look at me like I was crazy…and also really, really old.

(photo: Elzbieta Sekowska / Shutterstock)