What is the Big Deal About

Child-led Unstructured Play

Children’s minds are wired to be inquisitive, to notice things they find interesting.   Children are naturally curious, creative and adventurous.  Children need to be provided an environment that allows and encourages curiosity, innovation, and creativity to grow and develop.  

Children do not learn how to play with others by being pushed to play beyond their emotional ability.  Guidance, nurturing and mentorship provided by adults who are present but resist the desire to “fix”, lead, or even be actively involved is invaluable as children learn about themselves, learn how to communicate, and learn how to take others feeling into account.

Play is a great way for a parent to better understand their child.  By paying attention to what they are drawn to you can discover what they are interested in.  By listening to their play conversations you can understand how they are feeling about situations and people.  By observing how they function in different play situations you can come to understand your child’s core temperament better and how to support them as they mature.

What follows is a list of ten ways play impacts a child, their development, and how we, the adults in their life, see them.


We all wish for our children to succeed, but the only one that can define what success is is “self” and that requires the freedom to figure it out.  Activities chosen and supervised by adults, while providing comfort to the adult, results in the child learning more of what the adult wants but less overall.  When chosen by the child, the child masters things that they are interested in and learns things that cannot be as easily taught in a structured setting such as communication skills, how to work with others and who they are.  Somewhere in the middle are the activates that are picked by the adult but then handed over to the children to explore, and experiment with creating an authentic child-led learning process.

Who Am I

Unstructured, child-led, child-driven play of any kind helps both you and your child get to know and better understand who they are. Each child has their own uniqueness in how they engage in different types of environments.  During play, a child’s temperament, personality, and energy level are illuminated as well as their interests, strengths/challenges and how they learn.   Understanding the world through your child’s eyes at play is critical as it provides you, the parent, an understanding of the types of nurturing environments your child needs to thrive.

Information & Ideas

Children need to acquire information and ideas in order to play.  While children need to be provided the opportunity to engage often and regularly in exploring the natural world around them – exploration play; they also must be provided the opportunities to gain information and ideas about things they know nothing about.  For a child to acquire new ideas and discover new things they need to serendipitously come into contact with them.  Where would this happen?  On trips to the library, especially combing through the kids non-fiction section, or on trips to places such as a museum, zoo or local event.


Some of the best “toys” are not called “toys” at all.  A “toy” is an item that a child engages with as they discover, engage with and re-create their environment.  Creative “toys” are items that can be used in multiple ways and flow with the child’s active, innovative and creative mind.  “Creative toys” are found in nature such as sticks, rocks, and wood.  “Creative toys” can also be found in your hardware store such as the insulation pieces used to cover hot water pipes which can flow from a fire hose to a pirate sword or be tied together for a horse trough or a tripod to hold a pioneer stew pot.  Tools such as shovels, hammer, screwdrivers, saws, child-safe kitchen knives, whisks, and scissors while not toys are included here as children need to be given opportunities to use them while engaging and experimenting with their ideas.

Experimentation leads to better understanding

During child-led, child-driven play, a child is naturally led to pose questions and experiment with different solutions and ideas.  It is from the engaging with an idea through play, that a child comes to internalize and understand it.  Ben Franklin summons it up in this quote “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I learn. Involve me and I remember.”


A conversation that flows from play is richer, more elaborate, and spontaneous.  By actively listening to children during play, adults are able to help them with communication skills, in real time, providing a better platform for understanding for the child.  While it is o.k. to introduce new language the child must be allowed to disregard or discard what is offered as long as they remain respectful.

Different stages of play

We are not born knowing how to play cooperatively it is a learned skill.  Solitary play: The first stage of play; from birth to about two the child’s play is based on exploration which they love to do by themselves.  Parallel play: They are more interested in watching others and listening to other children but play is next to instead of with other children.  Associative play: this looks a lot like cooperative play but the play is more about mimicking each other, borrowing from each other and taking turns while still acting on their own.  Finally Cooperative play: children are really speaking to, listening to and interacting with each other.  The time spent in each stage is highly variable but most children are not truly cooperative in their play until four or five; at that time cooperative play is most successful with only one other friend.  It will be a few more years until successful cooperative play happens between 2-3 children especially if they are peers of about the same age.

Different types of play

Child-led, child-driven, unstructured play encompasses everything that encourages a child to be curious, explore and grow.  There are many different types of play, many overlap when a child plays. Four are listed here:  Construction play=building things, big things-structures to play in; Imaginative play= where the child’s play comes alive with dragons, fairies and fictitious things they make-up; Pretend play also known as role playing or make-believe=experimenting with occupations and how things are done; Free ranging adventurous exploration=examining the world in which we live with the freedom to engage from our own curiosity.

The mind at play is free flowing

Child-led unstructured play is free flowing.  When the child is in the driver’s seat during play the child’s mind hops around in a non-linear associative thinking pattern.  Child-led unstructured play allows the child to develop their natural ability to connect ideas that to not appear, at first glance, to be related.  There is no right or wrong way to play, an adult needs to let the child lead, while they follow the flow and enjoy the journey.

Energy levels of play

Play freely chosen by the child will show individual differences in the energy level the child uses in the innovative thought process.   Take a play car, for example, a lower energy child may carefully observe it while slowly moving it across the floor and want to draw or redesign it while a high-energy child will take the car and move with it as together they fly over, under and around objects as the child chatters to no one.

I have discovered many children define their childhood based on the time they spent in self- chosen, self-driven activities exploring, experimenting and innovating. I believe childhood should be a “Wonderful Adventure” or as Mark Twain referred to his childhood “Magical”.


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