Structured and Unstructured Play
I used to be a little unsure about what counts as structured play and what counts as unstructured play. I used to think that structured paly is when we put out toys for little ones to play with and also tell them what to do with those specific toys.
But structured play can actually be many things from puzzles and sorting games through organized sports teams or classes, doing the laundry, bunny hopping to the bathroom to planting flowers. It can be any physical or mental activity that teaches preschool-aged children new skills. It is a play with purpose and it generally involves logic to solve problems. The Tic Tac Toe Wooden Toy or the Patchwork Quilt Puzzle Wooden Toy would be great for structured play.
On the other side we have unstructured play. For me, the meaning of this has always been more obvious. It is creative, open ended and improvised with no set goal and unlimited possibilities.
For example today, our little girl took out her wooden animals, an autumnal tree, some autumn leaves and started playing with them. She invited me to participate in her play. This gave us opportunity to talk about autumn and how the leaves are changing colours and fall from the tree. At one point, the squirrel run up the tree and then fell from it. So she took out her doctor's kit, gave it some medication and put a plaster on it's legs. It's wonderful to see how little ones can turn one game into a totally different one in seconds. Their imagination is fascinating.
Some other examples of unstructured play are playing with blocks, drawing on blank paper or running around on the playground. Some great open ended toys for unstructured play are: wooden figures, rainbow stackers, rockers and climbing frames.
The Importance of Each
Both structured and unstructured play are important for children’s wellbeing and growth. Helping children develop logical thinking skills is just as important as helping them develop creative thinking skills. In a structured-play activity, children are learning how to recognise patterns and meet a pre-established goal in the most efficient or effective way. Unstructured play teaches children how to create from scratch and explore possibilities.
If we would like children to learn how to solve problems, work towards individual or collective goals, or improve active listening skills then we have to find some structured play activities in which the specific children are happy to participate. These activities also develop stronger communication skills, help with confidence and teach how to cooperate within a team.
If we would like to build important qualities such as creativity, empathy and imagination then unstructured play is the best option. These activities allow children to make mistakes and let them enjoy freedom and control. They also help them learn how to think 'outside-the-box'.
Before deciding on which form of play we should choose, we must always observe the children to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. While particular age groups have similar traits, every child is different.
After we had chosen the activity, we can observe if the children are fully immersed in it. If children lose focus, it may be time to switch to a different kind of activity - for example, an unstructured activity if they become bored or complete the goal for a structured activity.
As in many aspects of our lives, when deciding between structured and unstructured play, balance is the key.