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Posted in Family and Friends | April 2014

A Little Unstructured Play Goes a Long Way – USA

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 a young imagination. 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 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 high-need neighborhoods.

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. In fact, a recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revealed that young people spend an average of seven hours a day on TVs, computers and smartphones. The AAP’s guideline is no more than two hours of screen time per day for children over two years old 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 helps families unplug for an hour a 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

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

³Media and Children, American Academy of Pediatrics:

410037 US (04/15)


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