Unstructured Playtime

Many children have little unstructured time, allowing less opportunity to develop their physical skills, as well as their creativity and social skills. Pediatricians can help parents see the benefits of providing free playtime, especially outdoors, for their children.


Unstructured play provides many benefits for children including, but not limited to, the opportunity to:

  • Create and explore their world
  • Develop new competencies that lead to improved confidence
  • Determine rules and develop social skills
  • Practice decision making
  • Engage in physical activity while improving coordination and movement planning strategies

In addition, play allows parents to engage with their children in a unique way, giving parents the opportunity to view the world from the child’s vantage point while demonstrating interest in the child’s perspective.

Unfortunately, many of the pressures of today’s society and lifestyles have combined to decrease the amount of time children have available for unstructured play. The focus on educational achievement and team sports leaves children with little unstructured playtime and thus little opportunity to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills.


  • Family bonds can be strengthened during unstructured playtime.
  • Unstructured playtime allows for the enhanced and optimal cognitive, social, and emotional development of children.
  • Active play promotes physical and mental health.



The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report in 2007 documenting the benefits of unstructured playtime for children. (1)

Play is important for many aspects of brain development: Big muscle movement—gross motor skills, small muscle movement—fine motor skills/coordination, cognitive development, social and emotional development

Play allows children to explore their world and make discoveries.


Play allows children the opportunity to be creative and problem solve, play allows children to address their fears and uncertainties, play allows children to practice new skills and competencies.

Unstructured play with other children allows children time to develop leadership skills as they learn how to work with others, negotiate and problem solve together, resolve conflicts, develop rules and make decisions, resolve conflicts, and develop rules and make decisions.

When parents play with their children, they gain a glimpse into the child’s world and can see the world through their child’s eyes.

Studies show children pay more attention to their academic studies after having had an unstructured recess time. (2)

Physican education classes were not effective substitutes for times of unstructured play. (3) Recesses appeared to be the most beneficial when they lasted between 10 and 30 minutes. (4)


A review of 46 studies showed children’s language skills were enhanced when children participated in pretend play. (5)

In particular, the use of construction toys, such as blocks, contributed to:

Language development, Motor skills and hand-eye coordination, Spatial skills, Divergent problem solving (when a problem has more than one answer; this skill is related to creativity), Improved math skills.

A longitudinal study found that the complexity of a child’s block play at age 4 predicted mathematics achievements in high school even when controlling for IQ. (6)

Families face several challenges in this arena.

More families have a single head of household or two working parents, so fewer adults are available to supervise children’s play.

Parents feel pressured to ensure their children’s academic success and to often have children involved in structured activities. This structure equates with “good parenting.”

Schools have responded to academic pressures by decreasing recess time.

In 1989 a survey of elementary school principals found that 96% of school systems had at least one recess period. However, 10 years later, a similar survey found that only 70% of kindergarten classes allowed one recess. Schools state this is a response to the federal regulations requiring schools to focus on academic subjects. (7)

Many afterschool programs also focus on academics, allowing less time for play.

Passive entertainment in front of screens has taken the place of active, outside play. Children are spending more time in front of screens, especially when parents believe screen time is educational.

By three years of age almost one third of children have a television in their bedroom. (8)

40% of 3-month-old infants are allowed to regularly watch television and DVDs. (9)

50% of parents believe that infant videos can enhance their children’s development. (10)

Children are spending less time outside. In one study in the early 1980s, 12- to 14-year-olds averaged more than 75 minutes of outdoor play on weekends. By 2003, this had decreased to 50 minutes. (11)

These pressures leave children less time available for unstructured play, both indoors and outdoors.

The amount of time children spent playing decreased 16% in the time period of this study from 1980-2003. (12)

The amount of unstructured time spent outdoors decreased by approximately 50% between 1981 and 1997. (12)



This timing of the conversation is dependent on the age of the child. Ideally, this could become part of a yearly discussion with parents.

This conversation involves the parents of the child.

Physicians can help reframe the concept of “good parenting” to allow unstructured playtime.

Health professionals caring for children are encouraged to include the child in the discussion, and this conversation is one that is especially geared toward the physician talking directly with the child.

Ask the child to tell you about his or her activities. “What do you do after school?”  Follow up with questions such as, “What do you enjoy most about [fill in the activity the child has mentioned]?”   Then ask, “Do you have any time when you can play by yourself or with other children? What do you like to do then?”  If the child or parent answers “no,” explain to the parent the importance of unstructured playtime. Consider giving the parent “homework”—to let the child have at least 30 minutes (or start with 15 minutes) every day where the child is allowed to choose his or her own non-screen activity.

This is especially beneficial if the child can experience time outdoors. Encourage some, but not all, time be spent with other children. Limit the child’s screen time as outlined in the statement from the American College of Pediatricians, The Media, Children and Adolescents. (13) Unlimited screen time hampers a child’s creativity and limits active play by tempting the child to stay inside rather than play outside. Consider encouraging “construction” toys—Legos, blocks, Construx, and K’Nex. Toys without screens or batteries are best because they require more creativity of the child. Encourage the parent to initially not “interfere” with this time—don’t set rules or determine how or what the child can do (within safety constraints).

Ask parents to consider how to “schedule” this playtime into the family’s week. “Will this be possible?” “What may prevent the schedule from allowing some unstructured time for everyone?” This may be accomplished by simply turning off the television, smart phone, and/or video games.

Parents also benefit from unstructured time!


infoParents who are unable to complete this assignment should be monitored carefully for their ability to separate and/or differentiate themselves from their child and eventually their ability to appropriately set limits for the child.


1.   Ginsburg KR, Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics. 2007;1:182-191.

2.      Pelligrini AD, Holmes RM. The role of recess in primary school. In: Singer D, Golinkoff R, Hirsh-Pasek K, eds. Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Socio-emotional Growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2006, http://bookstore.unm.edu/p-102373-playlearning-how-play-motivates-and-enhances-childrens-cognitive-and-social-emotional-growth.aspx.

3.      Bjorkland DF, Pellegrini AD. Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Dev. 2000;71:1687-1708.

4.      Pelligrini AD, Holmes RM. The role of recess in primary school. In: Singer D, Golinkoff R, Hirsh-Pasek K, eds. Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Socio-emotional Growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2006, http://bookstore.unm.edu/p-102373-playlearning-how-play-motivates-and-enhances-childrens-cognitive-and-social-emotional-growth.aspx.

5.      Fisher EP. The impact of play on development: a meta-analysis. Play Culture. 1992;5(2),159-181.

6.      Wolfgang CH, Stannard LL, Jones I. Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. J Res Child Educ. 2001;15(2),173-180.

7.      Pellegrini AD, Bohn CM. The role of recess in children’s cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educ Res. 2005;34:13-19.

8.      American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement. Media Use by Children Less Than Two Years. Pediatrics 2011. 128(5):1040-45.

9.      Zimmerman FJ, Christakis DA, Meltzoff AN. Television and DVD/video viewing in children younger than 2 years. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(5)473-479.10. Ridout, V. Parents, Children and Media: A Report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation; 2007:7, http://kff.org/other/poll-finding/parents-children-media-a-kaiser-family-foundation/.

10.  Juster FT, Ono H, Stafford FP.  Changing Times of American Youth: 1981-2003. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; 2004. http://ns.umich.edu/Releases/2004/Nov04/teen_time_report.pdf.

11.  Hofferth S, Sandberg J. Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997. Report No. 00-456. Ann Arbor, MI: Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/pdf/rr00-456.pdf.

12.  American College of Pediatricians position statement, The Media, Children and Adolescents, 2014. http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-media-children-and-adolescents. Accessed 9/24/15.