The lost art of unstructured play

We may be forgetting the benefits of unstructured, unscheduled downtime for our kids, says Chris Judd.

Chris Judd

Chris Judd

Chris Judd is a former AFL footballer and twice winner of the Brownlow Medal.

All articles

I should start with a caveat.

When it comes to raising kids, I don’t believe we should be banning the gadgets. I think kids can wholly benefit from screen time, and experimenting with new technologies. This is, after all, the future. And tech will be central to how our kids relate to one other.

Having said that, I don’t know many kids who aren’t getting enough screen time.

What they may not be getting is enough time and exposure to unstructured play. When we talk about unstructured playtime, we’re talking about time alone, or with friends, or with a parent; when there are no rules, no rigid structure and no limit to the scope of imagination.

Kids don’t need much to play. I remember when our eldest (Oscar) was younger, he was pretty adamant about taking his footy everywhere he went. When we took a trip to the snow once he made it clear that not having his footy there to play with was a Big. Deal.

So I rolled some socks up into a ball. That was his footy – his imagination did the rest. He scored a lot of goals through multiple doorways.

Free play can help kids to develop problem-solving and resilience skills, while keeping them active. It can also teach them to be alone, to be bored, to be creative, to work as a team.

This month, TIME released a special edition on The Science of Childhood, which stated, “Nothing is as natural as a child at play.” As part of the edition, writer Siobhan O’Connor revealed that in the US free, unscheduled playtime has been declining steadily over the past 50 years.

“When children do play, it’s more likely to be highly structured – think playdates and enrichment classes,” she wrote.

If kids have an activity planned for every night of the week, chances are they’ll get to Friday and be exhausted. We want the best for our children, but we’ve got to be careful not to place our own ambitions onto our kids. If they’re always ticking things off a list they won’t have time for unstructured play; time where they can develop fundamental social and empathetic skills, and figure out what it is they actually like doing, and what they don’t.

Free play can be indoors or outdoors. It might work with a loose structure to kick things off (we play a game of hide and seek with the kids before letting them do their own thing). Outdoor play areas are great for when the weather behaves; we’re in the habit of just going to the park and seeing what happens. Like with most parenting activities, it’s trial and error, but I reckon the experimentation itself is healthy.

As parents, one of the biggest things we can do for our kids is to give them our time. This could involve taking them to the park, sitting on the floor to play, kicking off a game of hide and seek, or making sure they enjoy unstructured downtime while we cook dinner in the background.

It doesn’t cost anything, it can be an energising and creative time for the whole family, and it gives kids the space they need to enjoy themselves while they develop fundamental skills – without even realising it.

Dr Helen Thomas is a Psychologist and works regularly with children.

“It’s always been thought that the function of play is to learn how to live; learning how to hunt, catch food, fight, whatever was necessary. But because there have been developments in neuroscience and what we know about the brain, we now know that there are some amazing links between what happens during play and the prefrontal cortex.

“There’s research that shows that unstructured play – play that’s child-led, no-one else telling them what they should be doing or achieving – is really important for the development of social skills. It’s also shown to assist with emotion regulation – so helping kids learn to manage their feelings and teaching them about the responses of other people.

“It’s important for kids to play on their own, with peers, and it’s hugely beneficial for parents to be involved too, as it fosters the connection between parent and child.”

Chris Judd

Former Australian Rules footballer Chris Judd is familiar with how to get your heart rate up and push yourself physically. Twice winner of the prestigious Brownlow Medal, Chris is an honoured sportsman and father to four children, Oscar, Billie, Tom and Darcy. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.