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Posted in Family and Friends | April 2014

A Little Unstructured Play Goes a Long Way – Canada

Unstructured play
Five-year-old to mom: “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”

Mom to five-year-old: “Use your imagination”

Five-year-old to mom: “It’s broken.”

Can a child’s imagination actually stop working? Probably not, but with true play time on the decline North American children have less opportunity to engage in the fantasy, make-believe and role-playing activities that nourish young minds. According to the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, free play time for children dropped about 25% between 1981 and 19971 and has been on a downward trend ever since.

Unstructured play is open-ended play that has no specific learning objective and has not been designed or directed by adults. When engaging in unstructured play, kids invent their own games, create their own worlds and enjoy play for play’s sake rather than working towards a pre-set outcome or result. The benefits go beyond sheer fun; experts agree that free play helps children develop creativity and social skills, test their boundaries, learn how to handle their emotions and solve problems and develop an appreciation for group dynamics.

For a prime example of unstructured play, observe how kids behave in a playground if left alone create their own fun. They go from slide to swings to sandbox on their own, start impromptu games of tag, make friends and challenge themselves. As an organization committed to family well-being, life insurance provider Foresters™ partners with KaBOOM! to help build safe, enjoyable playgrounds within walking distance of communities that need it most..

Global, social and economic forces have combined to limit the amount of true play time available to children today. More households have two working parents so children need to be enrolled in safe programs before and after school. By necessity, these programs are adult-supervised and highly structured. Also, with the rise of standardized testing, schools place a higher emphasis on academics which often results in less time for recess and physical education, even though school principals agree that recess has a strong positive impact on academic achievement.²

When they get home, children have more homework than previous generations and busy parents are reluctant to let them play outdoors unsupervised. Children today are spending more time using and playing with electronic devices and less time outdoors. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children ages five to 11, less than one hour for children ages two to four, and none for children under two.³


So how can you help your child reap the rewards of unstructured play? Start by restricting the use of electronic devices. Even educational video games and apps are adult-designed and can stifle creativity. If this is tough for your busy family, try the Foresters Tech Timeout challenge™, an initiative that asks families to unplug for an hour a day, every day for one week.

Give your children “true toys” that allow them to make up the rules. Blocks, dolls, clay, costumes and craft supplies open up a world of possibilities for developing minds. Kathy Kirsh-Pasek, author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards, suggests: “Toys should be 90% child and 10% toy. They should be props for children’s fantasy, not directors for their every behavior.”

Take your children outside and ask them to invent a game that everyone can play or introduce them to active games from your own childhood like “What Time is it, Mr. Wolf” or “Capture the Flag”. For more tech-free family activities, visit

Foresters™ is the trade name and a trademark of The Independent Order of Foresters, a fraternal benefit society, 789 Don Mills Road, Toronto, Canada M3C 1T9; its subsidiaries are licensed to use this mark.

Tech Timeout and the Tech Timeout logo are trademarks of The Independent Order of Foresters


1The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2005:

²The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess

³Canadian Paediatric Society, Healthy Active Living: Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Adolescents:

410038 CAN (04/15)


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