Importance of Unstructured Outdoor Play

Kindergarten-aged girl using a jump rope at the playground

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.   

The Benefits of Unstructured Play for Kids

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. 
Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
Kindergarten-aged girl using a jump rope at the playground