Free Play is Great, But Structured Play Has Its Place, Too

The Benefits of Structured Play For Children

The last time we talked about play we covered the differences between free play and free for all play.

Free play is an important part of childhood learning and development, but structured play also has it’s benefits. In fact, children need all sorts of different types of play experiences, because each type plays a specific role in childhood growth and development.

Let’s explore what structured play is, the benefits, and how to provide these experiences for your child.

What is structured play?

The key difference between structured play and free play is that the players are given direction and guidance surrounding their play activities. Structured play includes organized activities, like sports, that have set rules and clearly defined objectives (like winning the game).

It’s also sometimes referred to as “play with a purpose,” and it’s easy to see why. Structured play is goal oriented, and competition can play a role, but a competitive spirit isn’t necessarily a prerequisite.

As you’ll read later, there are tons of ways kids can play with structure, and they aren’t all focused on sports and winning!

How does structured play benefit children?

Structured play has a number of benefits, and players can learn so much from participating in structured play activities:

  • Players can learn how to work as a team and how to communicate with their peers.
  • They learn how to manage their emotions while building social skills.
  • Structured play teaches children how to identify and achieve goals.
  • An understanding of boundaries and rules will be developed.
  • It can be easier to encourage active play and exercise with structured play.
  • This type of play helps children develop motor skills, hone movement, and improve coordination.
  • Children who engage in structured play also develop close bonds with their parents and teachers, laying the groundwork for a supportive interpersonal foundation in their lives.

How to give your child structured play opportunities

It’s important to provide children with opportunities for both free and structured play, however, structured play shouldn’t be your main priority. In fact, recent research has demonstrated that children should experience twice as much unstructured time (free play) as they do structured play.

Organized sports are a type of structured play activity, but sports aren’t the only option. Each of the following activities are types of structured play:

  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Games like tag, red-light/green-light, or hide and go seek (which are also great for getting kids running around and moving!)
  • Putting together Legos, or anything else involving instructions
  • Classes, like music lessons or dance lessons

You can also incorporate structured play into your daily activities.

For example, sorting laundry can be a type of play: teach your young child how to match socks and tackle the laundry folding together.

Yard work is another option. Watch how my son Naylan plants seeds in the video below. Notice how I give him some structure, guidance, and feedback, but he’s also able to discover things on his own.

And, the play has a clear goal: plant the seeds.

More structured play resources

If you’re still stumped, here are some more ideas for structured play that your child might enjoy, plus some resources for your own learning:

Fundamentally Children – Structured Play Activities.

Little PNuts – The True Benefits of Structured Play. This post has some fantastic ideas for encouraging structured play, and I particularly love the emphasis on monitoring where your child is at developmentally.

Spark – The Benefits of Structured Physical Activity for Early Childhood Programs. This article has a big focus on preventing childhood obesity, plus more information about the benefits of structured play.

The most important consideration for any type of play

As you learn more about the different types of play it’s easy to become fixated on providing all of these different experiences for your child. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, here are two questions you can ask yourself:

Dock Diving is another example of structured play… for dogs and kids!
  • How engaged is my child in this activity?
  • Is high quality play occurring?

When the player is completely engaged in whatever activity they’re doing, they’re able to take ownership, absorb meaning, be creative, solve problems, and find enjoyment.

Quality playtime helps children develop habits and patterns of thinking, and learning about themselves and the world around them will benefit them throughout their entire lives.

Can you think of some structured play activities that your child would enjoy, and that would fully engage them? Don’t be shy – share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas in the comments!