parenting, Uncategorized, Uncategorized, Unstructured play

The benefits of unstructured playtime for children

We are going to go on a tangent today and talk about the importance and benefits of free play and outdoor play for children. The reason why I want to talk about this topic is because I feel that many children are not getting enough outdoor and unstructured playtime these days. I looked up some recent research and I’d like to share a few key points. I personally LOVE exploring the outdoors with my speech kiddos. I try to do therapy sessions outside whenever possible and the kids love it (living in California thankfully makes this possible all year round). 

Using nature to teach these two-year-olds language

The benefits of unstructured free play and playing outdoors:

Cognitive benefits: creativity, problem solving, focus, and self-discipline
Social benefits: cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness
Emotional benefits: stress reduction, reduced aggression, and increased happiness (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005).

Play is critical to healthy child development. Play allows children to use their creativity while they are growing their imagination, physical, cognitive, and social-emotional strength. In order to develop cognitively, socially, and emotionally, children need lots of old-fashioned free play. What is free play? Free play is simply unstructured playtime and it is the best form of self-education and discovery for children. Free playtime helps children learn how to work collaboratively, to negotiate and resolve conflicts, and to share with others. When children move at their own pace without the adult pressure and stress, they discover their own interest areas and engage fully in their interests. 
It’s also very important for some of this free play to take place outdoors when possible. 

According to a study on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable their attention deficit symptoms were in general (Taylor, Frances and William, 2001). Another study found that even a view of nature helped reduced stress among highly stressed children (Wells and Evans, 2003). 

Today many families have hurried lifestyles where they jump from one activity to the other. We all want to be great parents and go that extra mile for our children, but sometimes that extra mile is not so great. We put our kids in all these classes to make sure they keep up with other children physically and academically. We rush from swimming to dance to piano lessons to reading classes, and we get so exhausted at the end of the day. I am myself so guilty of the hurried lifestyle. I work throughout the week so I try to pack our weekends with “fun” activities. I know extracurricular activities (e.g. sports, dance, music, art, etc.) are important and we all want our children to excel, but we also want to make sure our kids get to be kids, use their imagination, and play without being rushed into the next activity. I do not think that there is anything wrong with music lessons, soccer, dance, etc. I just believe that it is not fair for our children to be stressed and overworked. Rosenfeld and Wise (2000) believe that the hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety for some children and may lead to depression. Sometimes the best thing we can do for our kids is to sit back and let them play freely. It may be hard to find a good balance of structured time vs. unstructured time but trying to find that balance is a great place to start. 

Here are some pictures of my little one playing outdoors. He truly enjoys free
play outdoors. We make it a point for him to get outside at least once a day to play (again, thanks to living in California). Sometimes I sit back forever and let him play with dirt, sand, and rocks. It is so much fun to watch little ones play and explore.

Research on the lack of free play and outdoor play:

Children have less free time for play and more time for structured activities: 

Two studies looked at changes in how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997 and between 1997 and 2002/3. They found out that children’s discretionary time (i.e., time not spent in school, child care, etc.) declined 12% (7.4 hours a week) from 1981 to 1997 and an additional 4% (2 hours) from 1997 to 2002/3. They reported that less time is spent in unstructured activities (e.g., free play) and more time is spent in structured activities (e.g., sports and youth programs). They also noted  a doubling of computer use. In their analyses, they found that a number of these findings were associated with demographic changes in U.S. families, such as the increase in households headed by single parents and the increase in maternal employment (Hofferth and Sandberg 2001).

Children’s homes are filled with media:

According to Rideout and Hamel (2006), Children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years spend an average of 1.5 hours with electronic media on a daily basis and according to Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout (2005), children between the ages of 8 and 18 years spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day with electronic media. Nearly one third of children from 6 months to 6 years of age live in households where the TV is on all or most of the time. Children whose parents have lower incomes or less formal education, for example, tend to watch more TV and play more video games than children whose parents have higher incomes and more formal education. It is not surprising that over the past several decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of overweight children in the United States.

Many children are vitamin D deficient: 

Kumar and colleagues (2009) found that 9% of 1 to 21 year-old children were vitamin D deficient, representing 7.6 million U.S. children, and 61% were vitamin D insufficient, representing 50.8 million U.S. children. Vitamin D is primarily produced in the skin after exposure to sunlight and is essential for the absorption of calcium. Some children who are not outdoors long enough do not get enough vitamin D. 

Many preschool children do not achieve recommended physical activity levels:

Tucker (2008), reviewed 30 studies published between 1986 and 2007 on the physical activity levels of preschool-aged children and found out that many children are not achieving recommended physical activity levels. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, preschool children should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity and up to several hours of unstructured play each day. Tucker also emphasized the important role of early childhood educators, parents, and teachers in promoting children’s healthy physical activity levels. 

Some schools are reducing free playtime to make room for more academics: 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, despite the numerous benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children. This trend has even affected kindergarten children, who have had free play reduced in their schedules to make room for more academics. 


Our children today are not getting enough free play or outdoor play. Make time for your children’s unstructured playtime and let them be kids. They have the rest of their lives to be overworked. Live a life where you allow yourself time to sit back and enjoy your child’s free play. Take your children to the park or your backyard when you can and let them run around freely so they can get their recommended daily physical activity (perhaps they’ll sleep better too). I am not trying to tell you how to parent; however, as an early intervention clinician, I see so many kids that are not allowed free play and I just want to try my best to bring awareness to the positives of free play and outdoor play. 


Burdette, Hillary L., M.D., M.S.; and Robert C. Whitaker, M.D, M.P.H. “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation and Affect.”  2005 American Medical Association.

Hofferth, S. L., & Sandberg, J. F. (2001), “How American children spend their time.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(2), 295-308

Kumar, J., Muntner, P., Kaskel, F. J., Hailpern, S. M., & Melamed, M. L. (2009). Prevalence and associations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin D deficiency in US children: NHANES 2001-2004. 

Rideout, V. and E. Hamel. The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Their Parents. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006. 

Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U., & Rideout, V. Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005. 

Rosenfeld AA, Wise N. The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap. New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin; 2000 

Taylor, Andrea Faber; Frances E. Kuo; and William C. Sullivan. In Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2001. Sage Publications, Inc.

Tucker, P. (2008). The physical activity levels of preschool-aged children: a systematic review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(4), 547-558. 

Wells, N.M., and Evans, G.W. “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children.” Environment and Behavior. Vol. 35:3, 311-330. 

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