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?
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.
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.”
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
- Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children #afflink
- Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children #afflink
- The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age #afflink
Articles On Unstructured Outdoor Play, etc
- All Work And No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed
- Unstructured Play (and Why Your Kids Need More of It This Summer)
- The Freedom of Space
- The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature They Need
- The Kids Don’t Play Any More
- Unstructured Free Play Important for Kids, Development Experts Say
- The Serious Need For Play
- The Purpose of Play
Schools + Unstructured Outdoor Play
- “Recess Is Not Developmentally Appropriate for Our Youngest Students”
- Kindergarten teacher: My job is now about tests and data — not children. I quit.
- So, You Want to Give Your Child Some Homework
Ideas From Parents for Unstructured Outdoor Play
- 5 Reasons For Unstructured Play
- Running A Hill – Unstructured Outdoor Play
- Unstructured Outdoor Play Series
- Classic Outdoor Fun: Rolling Down the Hill
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?