Why “Unstructured” Play is a Good Thing


Sometimes it seems like we as sports parents are scheduling our kids (and by default ourselves!) to death. Soccer practice, swim lessons, reserved time in the batting cages, one-on-one coaching sessions—every minute of free time during the week and on the weekends is carefully planned and organized and scheduled to keep our kids busy. And while there is nothing wrong with making sure your child stays active and off the couch (especially now that the weather is finally warming up!) there is something to be said for regular old play time. You know what we’re talking about; the “unstructured” play in the backyard, on playgrounds, on the bike path or empty basketball courts and baseball fields. Maybe we, and our youth athletes, could use a little more free play.

Here are 3 reasons why unstructured play is a good thing:

1. Teaches kids to entertain themselves.

Being bored is sometimes a good thing! It might sound crazy, but think about the best ideasWhy “Unstructured” Play is a Good Thing and games you and your friends came up with as a kid. It was probably because you were bored out of your mind and wanted to stop being bored, right? When every minute of free time is planned out for them, kids don’t have to learn how to entertain themselves or break the boredom cycle on their own. A little unstructured play time means they are responsible for their own fun. You’d be amazed at the crazy stories and games kids will come up with when left to their own devices. Pillow fort in the living room anyone?

2. Have fun with no pressure to perform.

Let’s be honest sports parents, sometimes we get a little wrapped up in Little League or PeeWee football and turn into “that” sports mom or dad that takes youth sports a touch too seriously. Unstructured play like pickup basketball games with the neighborhood kids in someone’s driveway gives youth athletes the chance to just have fun and play the sport they love, with no pressure from either us or their coaches to perform. Sure, kids will keep score even without adult interference, but hopefully they don’t agonize over every mistake or misstep when they feel that no one is there to judge them. Let’s play for play’s sake!

3. No coaches, no officials, no parents—let the players figure it out.

What happens when you strip away the coaches to call plays, officials to enforce the rules, and parents to holler from the sidelines—something amazing happens, that’s what. The kids play anyway. And they learn how to figure things out on their own. After all, you are either safe or out; the hit was foul or fair, offside or not, completed pass or fumble. Sports, for the most part, are very black and white and sometimes two teams/players will not agree. But what are they going to do? Stand around and argue about it for 20 minutes or figure it out and move on? Unstructured play doesn’t mean kids will chuck the rules of the game out the window (although they might make a few up as they go), but it does mean they will have to learn how to enforce the rules on their own.

So let’s leave the organizer at home today and just head out the playground for some good, ole fashioned unstructured fun. Just remember that you as sports parents still have to abide by the rules of the playground (nice tips from nannybackgroundcheck.com!), just like you have to behave on the sidelines.