Unstructured Outdoor Play

posted in: Parenting | 16

Unstructured outdoor play (or indoor!) is so important for children. Whether it’s in the presence of others, or solitary play, purposeless unstructured play (that seem meaningless to us adults) is really essential for helping kids develop their imagination and process the world around them. Have you ever stopped to just watch a child play? To marvel at the improvisation and invention that comes from such a young mind?

Happy Toddler - playing in melting snow - unstructured outdoor play

As we’ve been in limbo between winter and spring, my toddler has been hanging onto every last opportunity to play in the snow. Seriously, whether it’s melting or not, he hasn’t cared. And since I wanted to get in one last post about snow 🙂 — I decided to share some ruminations from the other day while I watched my son play by himself. It’s truly a joy to enjoy observe unstructured outdoor play (unstructured indoor play too, I’m not picky)

Towards the end of this post, I’m sharing links about unguided, unstructured outdoor play, but I wanted to share a quote from one of the articles right now. It’s on the decline of unstructured play in over the decades:

The researchers found that compared to 1981, children in 1997 spent less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18 percent more time at school, 145 percent more time doing school work, and 168 percent more time shopping with parents. The researchers found that, including computer play, children in 1997 spent only about eleven hours per week at play. [ All Work And No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed]

And, imagine, what such a study would show in present day, given that 1997 was more than 16 years ago (the time elapsed between 1981 and 1997). I almost don’t want to do those calculations. Kids today have so much more access to technology, and free time (recess) during school is traded out for expanded “educational opportunities.”

I read about a challenge for parents to have their kids play outside an hour each day — wasn’t unstructured outdoor play a standard element of childhood? I know I got kicked outdoors as a kid for a couple hours daily (or most of the day during summertime). Note to self — thank my mother for that. Now, onto my thoughts as a mother about unstructured play.

Creating Without Intent – A Mother’s Perspective On Unstructured Outdoor Play

Right now, I’m watching my son play outside in the snow. He’s on our deck, in snow boots — no coat. It’s not all that cold out, so I’m not worried. Such a pleasant day! He’s thrilled to be outside. I’m thrilled to watch him play.

unstructured outdoor play - building a castle with melting snow
The wind whistles through the barren trees. He stops, looks up, and screams in delight. Is he listening to his echo? The sound of his voice? We’ve been reading a lot about bats and the soundwaves they use to catch insects lately. He is so observant, so curious about nature.

He hears the nearby highways sounds, tells me about the ambulance that went by, and how he’s going to stay outside.

The snow is a foot thick in places on our deck still. His lightweight body walks across its surface with ease. My husband comes home early and goes out to say hi. He crunches deep footprints through the snow, and helps our son fling a couple big scoops of snow off the deck. Then it’s time for toddler shoveling again. He scoops snow haphazardly, flinging it with delight. It doesn’t matter where the snow goes, there’s so much of it that one more scoop won’t make a difference. To start, he’d tried to clear off the deck, but realized the futility of it. Halfway through the winter, my husband had done the same – cleared a path to the stairs and left it at that. We built it well, the deck will hold the snow.

Still hard at work, my son stumbles in the snow. Nonplussed, he gets right back up and keeps shoveling. Hard at work, hard at play. No goal in mind, save shoveling snow. Oh, I remember the days of childhood, when it was a delight to complete tasks that had no “purpose.” But really, there is purpose. He is learning, he is experiencing, he is doing. His actions may seem pointless to an adult (schooled in the way of “efficiency”), but to a child, his actions are pointed and full of intent. And that is the joy of childhood. You get to define the meaning, you get to determine what matters to you. And you don’t care what anyone else thinks. Not yet. It’s all meaningful if you want it to be.

My son’s accomplishment? A snow castle, complete with broom, tunnels, and plowed “roads.”

unstructured outdoor play - melting snow - snow castle

More Resources – Unstructured Outdoor Play for Kids

If you want to read further on the benefits of unstructured play, or get ideas for encouraging unstructured outdoor play, here are some links below (they’ll open in a new window for your convenience).

Books Related to Parenting + Unstructured Outdoor Play

Articles On Unstructured Outdoor Play, etc

Schools + Unstructured Outdoor Play

Ideas From Parents for Unstructured Outdoor Play

Unstructured Play – Your Experience

What about you? Is there something that you take joy in the simple act of doing? That you’ve lost sight of because, as an adult, there are more “important things” to do? I know I loved creating things. It didn’t matter what, they didn’t have to have a purpose. I loved being out in nature for hours on end, playing pretend and defining my own reality.

As an adult, I’ve fallen away from these childhood joys. I “don’t have time” to do things without “purpose” or to just read for pleasure.

But who determines whether there’s enough time? Why am I filling my life with busywork? Just to make myself feel efficient?

unstructured outdoor play - toddler carrying snow with a spoon

16 Responses

  1. I love this post! Unstructured play is so important, plus it means less planning for me 🙂 Thank you for including a link to our rolling down a hill post. Now that Spring is here we are looking forward to doing that again!

  2. Betsy Finn

    My pleasure, Erica! I can’t believe your kids had never rolled down a hill before 🙂 — glad you remedied that problem! And yes, bonus points for less planning required. I’m all for “easy” activities. Not that I’m lazy or anything, but sometimes it increases the liklihood of an activity actually happening on a given (busy) day.

  3. Katherines Corner

    what a lovely post. yes just play, play, play… xo

  4. Betsy Finn

    Agreed, Katherine! I think they are happier too when they get to do that 🙂

  5. Meghan

    Love this post. It’s such a good reminder — especially, as you say, in these few remaining snowy days (we hope!).

    We often take a bit of time in the afternoon for Jasper to play on the deck while I tidy up just inside the doors. It’s a great little break for both of us!

  6. Betsy Finn

    Oh, we hope too, Meghan! As much as I love winter, I have to admit I’m ready for spring ;).

    Yes, the deck play is a great break; I love that I can get a little done in our kitchen while keeping an eye on toddler antics through the sliding door. Win win for all!

  7. I completely agree that kids need time to just be kids! We always feel like we have to keep them busy and occupied, but really, they just need time to let their imagination go. Thanks for the book recommendations too.

  8. Betsy Finn

    You’re welcome, Laura! And you know, I think it stresses us parents out too with all the many activities we are “supposed” to enroll our kids in to ensure they will grow into “well-rounded” adults. 🙂

  9. Nancy @ A Rural Journal

    I read an article from The Atlantic magazine about the effects of overprotective parents on their children — and I agree 100% with your thoughts.

  10. Kim Cunningham

    You speak truth! I see lots of over scheduling around us. I often wonder when kids just have time to be. I think boredom can be a very beneficial part of growing up because it invites you to create.

  11. Betsy Finn

    Thanks for sharing, Nancy. Always good to know there are like-minded parents out there 🙂

  12. Betsy Finn

    Hear, hear, Kim! Boredom is the best motivator for creativity!

  13. Kierna

    Love this post so much! I host an Outdoor Play Party fortnightly & a new one opens over at my blog tomorrow, would love if you would link this post up. I think it’s such an important message!

  14. Betsy Finn

    Thanks Kierna. I will try to remember to stop by 🙂 and visit.

  15. Nett

    What a lovely laugh.
    See you have snow. Here the snow has disappeared and spring begins. * likes *
    The picture inside of me was sunrise!

  16. Betsy Finn

    Thanks for visiting, Nett :). The snow has (mostly) melted in the past few days, so I’m hoping spring will make an appearance soon for us too!