Climbing trees or structures, making up pretend games, finding shells on the beach, or looking under rocks for bugs – these are all examples of unstructured play, and kids thrive as they experience them.
Why is unstructured outdoor play important? There are so many benefits, such as:
- Increased physical activity. Kids naturally run, jump, and move when they’re playing outdoors – no equipment required.
- Growing executive function skills. Executive function skills help us remember information, filter out distractions, switch gears, and maintain focus. Having the opportunity to manipulate your environment, navigate challenges, and use your imagination helps build executive function.
- Better overall health. Playing outdoors regularly can improve overall fitness, increase focus, and reduce health risks like childhood obesity. There is a growing body of research that suggests that outdoor play time can even lower a child's risk of developing myopia, or nearsightedness.
- Enhanced social skills. During unstructured play, children learn to communicate, cooperate, and solve problems together.
Younger Children and Unstructured Outdoor Play
Younger children need closer supervision than school-agers, but the benefits are the same. Try the following ideas for safe, unstructured play:
- Offer natural materials like sand, smooth pieces of wood, small stones, or shells.
- Provide cardboard boxes or tunnels for children to crawl in and through.
- Visit playgrounds that have equipment designed for smaller children.