The Beauty of Unstructured Play

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
01/18/21  8:00 AM PST
Unstructured Play

Since schools shut down last March, learning has looked a little or a lot different depending where you live…

In a recent study that surveyed the mental health of parents of kids ages five to seven, parents reported feeling “nervous, anxious, or on edge” due to the pandemic. No surprise there. The puzzle of schooling makes up a large part of this edginess. We don’t know how to help them learn when they aren’t in the classroom. We don’t know how to help them navigate Zoom while sitting at the dining room table or bedroom desk for hours on end when they are used to being in a room full of peers. We don’t remember first grade math and we are really wishing fall soccer and baseball and dance and gymnastics were happening to give us some structure, any structure, please.

However, as the mother of an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy and six-year-old twins, I have realized a few things about my children in these last nine months – they can learn anything, anywhere. And if left to their own devices, they are often more creative than I or their teachers could ever be.

No, I don’t think we could give up school or extracurriculars. My son needs his feeding and speech and occupational therapies as well as the social stimulus from peers. We all need that social stimulus right now. But there is something to be said for exploring your interests outside a structured environment.

The Benefits of Unstructured Play

Recently, my six-year-old son expressed an interest in basketball. If this were any other year, we would look into a league – maybe at the local recreation center. We’d sign him up and take him to practice and hope the coach could be the expert we are not and impart some basic skills. But we are not living in that time and so instead of an organized basketball season, we bought a curbside hoop, a mini basketball and let him loose. Here’s what he learned: how not to dribble on his foot, how to shoot a basket from behind the goal, how high he could throw the ball in the air and how far he had to run to escape its downward spiral. How a game of H-O-R-S-E is a thousand times better when you change it to H-I-P-P-O-P-O-T-A-M-U-S. Are any of these necessarily helpful in a real game of basketball with rules and a referee and parents and coaches yelling from the sidelines? No. But they are an awesome way to explore a sport and be creative and get some energy out and learn some physics.

unstructured play

I think we don’t give kids enough credit or leeway to explore their interests on their own. In our rush to formalize it and make it a “learning experience” we take some of that creativity away. If this pandemic has forced us to do anything, it’s how to use up some free time without relying on the systems usually set in place. It’s why everyone is home making banana bread and DIY bookshelves and firepits and decorating their Zoom spaces. When the norms are retracted, we get creative and sometimes it feels built from desperation, but sometimes unstructured play also just feels fun.

I have taken up knitting again – something I gave up years ago because two weeks to knit and purl a scarf was “a waste of time.” But you know what I have loads of now? Time. And my hands remember the texture of wool and chenille and how fun it is to tie off the fringe at the end. It’s lovely because it’s inventive without the pressure of productivity. My frenetic brain is loving the serenity of it.

Kids Are Still Learning

I was listening to a podcast recently where the guest mentioned things that kids have reported they have “learned” during their time off of structure school. Here are some, to name a few: how to tie shoes, write a check, bottle flip (thank you YouTube), braid hair, make caramel, build a pillow fort, etc. The list is endless and none of these things require organization and instruction by the parent or teacher (and in fact are better without). So if you’re out there, worrying about school and the impact of this break, let this be a small comfort to you. Our children want to learn. Their bodies and minds crave it. And because of that, through unstructured play they can explore in ways we couldn’t have predicted or facilitated and that is a wonderful gift in a time where we are in need of such upsides.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.
Read her blog, The Mom Gene.
Follow her on Facebook.

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