Unstructured Play Makes Kids Smarter

There are children in my extended family that hold such an impressive array of cultivated skills and talents, that I could see my utter obsolescence and relative inferiority take shape on the immediate horizon like a hulking downpour threatening to drench me in my own mediocrity. They play not one, but three team sports, they are accomplished in violin, piano, and cello, they ski and snowboard, and are proficient in gymnastics and karate (Not to mention their ability to effortlessly work the remote on a satellite television). This junior CV is all thanks to an ambitious and unyielding array of classes, lessons, and instructions in both curricular and extracurricular activities that occupy nearly every waking hour of their pre-adolescent lives. Impressive? Yes. Problematic…indeed.

Sidetracking the whole over scheduling phenomenon that has gotten a boatload of press and seems to gear children toward a type-A life as a cooperate executive, if nothing else, the dwindling of true, unstructured, free play is of paramount concern here. As is evidenced by a recent article in Scientific American by Melinda Wenner, there exists a serious need for imaginative, child-directed free play to insure normal social, emotional and cognitive development in children.

Many years ago, when play was simply an activity and not an activity dependent upon a toy, a game, or (egad) a video game, children engaged with their imagination or with one another in loose, improvised and sometimes wild play. Starting somewhere in the mid twentieth century, Children’s play became focused upon the toy, rather than the activity, with the functions and the limitations of the toy dictating the extent and direction of the play. Toys, along with children’s TV shows and movie narratives, became more advanced, more elaborate, more appealing and more dominant in all manner of play, creating more structure, rules and predictability in play (I.E. Barbie, Playstation, American Girl, etc).

Couple this with the parental desire to exert more control over their children’s activities in order to make them more safe, and secure from threats from the outside world, and you have a lot more children being placed in adult-moderated activities and classes that promise safety, enrichment and predictability. All this at a tremendous cost.

According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. This is a staggering drop as the engagement in free play remains critical for children becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. The simple activity of free play (however you want to define it) affords more creative responses and helps children build fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations, like separation from parents, self-esteem issues, and social conflict. When engaging in free play, children often learn empathy as well as a sense of fairness and equality that comes from taking turns and role-playing. Additional research sited in the Scientific American article suggests that play promotes neural development in “higher” brain areas involved in emotional reactions and social learning.

So while we may be equipping our children with some excellent multi-tasking skills and servicing them with some fine exposure to the arts and structured activities, we may be inadvertently robbing them of the creative and inspired realities of childhood. The evidence is in.

What is your experience with over scheduled children? Has anyone witnessed a marked deficit in children who do not regularly get unstructured playtime? Are you in agreement with this article, or do you feel that much more is to be gained through more structured play and exposure?


Debbie W.
Debbie Walter6 years ago

Yes, I agree! I am teaching a summer camp based around this idea of letting the kids come up with the ideas - I am simply there to help bring there ideas to life. I'm excited to see what they come up with.

Tara B.
Tara B6 years ago

I've noticed that kids don't seem to play "make believe" games the way they did when I was growing up. You still see kids "playing" as in riding bikes, sledding in winter, playing with specific toys that do specific things, but not the elaborate games that involved playing characters with made up names, in made up situations. It's sad.

Sandi C.
Sandi C7 years ago


Kimberly J.
Kimberly J7 years ago

Somebody needs to send this article to all elementary school principals. Because of NCLB & its high stakes testing, recess has almost disappeared from many elementary schools. Also, several years ago, the Florida legislature decided that every elementary & middle school student had to have PE every day, but they didn't give the elementary schools money to hire more PE teachers. So, instead of recess, many Florida elementary school students get teacher led PE. They have no free play time at all during the day which is very sad.

KS Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Jennifer C.
Past Member 7 years ago

Thank you.

J.L. A.
JL A7 years ago

One more argument for why schools must provide sufficient recess time during the school day.

Nicole Gorman
Nicole Gorman7 years ago

Thanks for the reminder. I personally think a mixture of structured and unstructured play should be the goal. Definitely don't want to stifle my child's creativity in any way shape or form (except when she decides to draw on my walls!!) but also want her to have the discipline instilled through organized sports/learning.

Joe R.
Joe R7 years ago

Good point.

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers7 years ago

Parents Take note! Let children have the freedom to use their imaginations.. They will enjoy life more, and will benefit all round. Expensive toys are not the answer!