Mom to Madre is delighted to have this excellent look at play by Shara Lawrence-Weiss, mom, Internet marvel, and owner of Mommy Perks. Thanks so much for sharing this helpful article with our readers.

What is Structured Play versus Free Play?

By Shara Lawrence-Weiss ©2011, Early Childhood News and Resources

Update: For an excellent discussion on play by Shara and Dr. Lynne Kenney, The Family Coach, click here.

My husband Rick recently asked me a few questions about PLAY. I decided to turn his questions into a Q&A post.


What do you consider to be the differences between structured play and free play?


I would view structured play as activities that keep the kids inside specific boundaries of play: play-doh time at the kitchen table with specific toys placed out for them to use, Lego time in the bedroom where we use Legos together and build a castle, arts and crafts at the table with pre-determined crafting products (craft kits, painting with paint brushes and paper that has been placed out for them, etc), going for walks for specific purposes such as collecting pine cones, going to the park for a play group where everyone brings a snack to share with the group, etc. These are structured activities with more boundaries than free play.

I would view free play as a less planned-out activity: the kids pull open the kitchen drawers and cupboards to see what they can find; perhaps they turn those items into musical instruments and decide to make a parade through the house. If the kids go outside and we do not direct them or tell them ‘what’ to play with, I would consider that free play. THEY get to choose what they are going to do: will they go for their own walk and pretend to be super heroes? Will they try to climb a tree? Will they create their own make believe world around the sand box and pretend that the animals outside are their guests of honor? Will they run and run and run until they can run no more? Will they find items outside to create a fort? Will they pull all of the toys from their toy chest and design a pattern along the floor or host a tea party for the toys? (Yes – they need to help clean up afterwards!) I view free play as a more imaginative time for kids with less rules and fewer guidelines. THEY get to pick how things will go and what will be done. What do THEY want to learn about? During free play, they will show YOU!


Do you think one is better than the other?


I think that both are imperative to a healthy childhood. If children can’t learn to follow rules and work within guidelines (like during structured play), how effective will they be in the workforce and as members of society? We all have to learn to use self control and listen to others if we plan to live productive adult lives.

On the flip side, if kids are continually placed from one structured activity to the next and never given the freedom to just “BE” – how will they learn to relax and use their imaginations and come up with new ideas that are generally fostered through free play time? Putting kids into non-stop structured activities is bound to stress them out, cause constipation and stifle their creativity. In fact, I’ve seen that happen to kids.

Children want and need boundaries and they also want and need time to EXPLORE, RUN, JUMP, SKIP, CREATE and LAUGH; without being told “No!” and “Stop!” and “Don’t do that!”


Should we be providing equal opportunity for both or should we be choosing one, more often, over the other?


Well, this question is a bit more complicated to me. I believe that all kids are different and not every child needs to be raised in the same manner. I once had a special ed teacher in college tell me, “FAIR does not mean that everyone gets the same. FAIR means that everyone gets what he or she NEEDS.”

That stuck with me.

I don’t treat my children the same because they are not the same. All three of them are different and I attempt to raise them as they each need to be raised based on their personalities, likes, dislikes, temperaments, talents and so on. Two of my kids are more high-strung and they need to know that it’s okay to let loose and play on their own without being entertained by a grown-up. Our youngest son is completely content to play on his own and would prefer to rip everything from our shelves all day long leaving giant messes in his wake, loving every second of it – he really needs to learn to live within more structure and follow more guidelines and rules.

So I watch my kids and monitor their intake of both structured and non structured activities. If our nanny has engaged them in structured play during the day and they are BUSTING at the seams to run around doing as they please for an hour, we let them do it. If they have been outside exploring for ages and they need some down-time to chill out, we go into the bedroom to play with the marble run or Legos – where they have more structure and can come ‘down’ from the running around, etc.

As far as professionally structured activities go, I think it’s great for kids to be involved in two activities per season if you can afford it: sports, a church group for kids, language classes, music classes, art lessons, etc. Kids don’t need any more than two activities at a time (my opinion). Otherwise we risk becoming Helicopter Parents and we already know that the research on this is not positive. Kids don’t need to be hovered over and controlled 24/7. They need boundaries but they also need the freedom to explore, make mistakes and to LEARN from their mistakes. Without being given the chance to make mistakes, we can’t learn to fix things. We then expect others to come to our rescue for all mistake-fixing endeavors (These people make the worst employees, by the way! They are incapable of working through issues on their own and need everyone else to jump in and help.).

Free play allows for mistakes to be made and for critical thinking to occur – these are lifelong skills that benefit our kids! The biggest issue arises, many times, when parents just can’t stand the idea that kids are going to make messes. Structured play is less messy and more controlled. Some parents want that control at all times and have a difficult time letting go and allowing their kids to be in control of their own learning. I was more that way with my first son (he is now twelve): I wanted to control his learning but I learned as a nanny about the value of free play and child-led learning and it made complete sense to me. I would allow kids to go outside (while I sat back and watched but did NOT direct them) and an hour later something amazing had been created. That never would have happened if I’d never let them ‘be.’ So I dropped my control guard and began allowing my son to show ME what HE wanted to learn; through free play moments.


Watching kids during free play seems to be far more exhausting than structured play.


It can be, yes. Free play gives kids more freedom to explore and in turn, that can cause more messes. They might get into the mud! Or dig in the dirt and get covered in dust! They might attempt to build a tower out of rocks and learn, all on their own, that you must have a larger base at the bottom from which to build up from. Maybe the rocks will tumble down and you’ll have to clean those up later on. You might have a mess in your kitchen if they pulled all of the Tupperware out and turned the pieces into instruments!

You never know what free play will render but that’s part of the benefit: it’s a learning experience and it gives our kids the gifts of imagination, exploration and creativity. Early childhood is the time to instill those gifts…once early childhood passes, if kids haven’t been allowed to explore or create, they tend to have a hard time with boredom. “Why isn’t someone entertaining me right now? What’s wrong with me? Why am I depressed? Why do I always feel the need to be going somewhere that keeps me busy? Why can’t I be okay with being alone?” These are all side effects of never learning how to self entertain.


What advantages does structured play offer?


Structured play is great for teaching kids to follow directions, listen, abide by rules and work within the boundaries. When they go to work some day, will their boss say, “Hey, man. It’s totally okay for you to do whatever you want here. We don’t actually make you follow rules. There’s a lot of buttons here and most of them shouldn’t be pushed but really – what could it hurt? You just have fun exploring, eh?! Enjoy, my friend.”

Kids need to learn that there are limits and guidelines and boundaries. This carries over into the work force, drinking, eating, TV watching, shopping, their own future parenting skills and much more.


What advantages does free play offer?


The chance to explore, create, imagine, make believe and look boredom in the face and say, “I don’t NEED anyone else to entertain me. I can come up with my own fun, thank you very much!” This is an invaluable skill to have and will make adult-hood so much more pleasant. There are so many wonderful things to do outside (and inside – when we use our imaginations) and so much to know about our world. If we know how to think up things to do and make, we won’t need to zone out on TV and electronics all day long. We’ll be more productive and more useful human beings! That’s awesome.

Darling photo is the property of Mommy Perks.

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2 Responses to “Play”

  1. lklipfel, Reply

    This is a great article. There truly are advantages of both play. Some parents are more comfortable with one kind than another, just like children. Some kids are comfortable with what available to them, while other kids crave what’s not.

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