Maintaining physical activity in youth is critical to their growth and development. In addition, physical activity may also have unintended consequences in relation to a child’s acquisition of important life skills.
In general, there are three kinds of physical activity a child can engage in: unstructured, structured and semi-structured play. For different reasons, each is important to a child’s growth and development.
Unstructured or Free play can be defined as times when an adult is not organizing the interaction between children. The key here is that the activity is driven by the child and not the adult. The child decides what, how, and with whom they play. For the most part, recess and lunch play times at school, are unstructured. The teachers and school supervision aides are present but only in the role of an observer and to ensure safety.
Unstructured play can vary in intensity – a running game like tag promotes heart-pumping activity, while building in the sand pit is less physically demanding. Active movement of any kind during play can build balance, confidence and coordination.
Unstructured play is a critical part of childhood. By participating in free play, children learn to work in groups, share, negotiate and resolve conflicts. When play is child driven, as opposed to being adult led, children are able to learn decision-making skills, to move at their own pace and to independently discover individual areas of interest. Free play also helps children develop their abilities to control their own cognitive and emotional processes, or to ‘self-regulate’. This is important because self-regulation s a predictor of a child’s academic achievement and emotional well-being.
The participation in unstructured play promotes not only physical health and social development but also nurtures cognitive and academic performance. Importantly, it also provides children with the opportunity to use their imagination and play creatively.
On the other side of the spectrum there is structured play. This type of play is mostly associated with organized sporting games such as baseball, basketball, football, etc. With structured play, the adults are the ones who regulate the interaction between the children.
Structured activities support kids in learning fundamental movement skills through adult instruction. Children learn the ABCs of movement during structured activities: Agility (the ability to move quickly and easily), Balance (the ability to stay steady while moving), Coordination (the ability to use different parts of the body together), and Speed (the ability to move quickly).
A range of structured activities helps kids develop these skills. These movement skills support kids’ confidence and competence, which helps them feel comfortable trying varied activities in different settings, including other sports and unstructured play.
The third type of play, semi-structured play, is a blend between the two sides of the play spectrum. This type of play aims to accomplish specific learning goals. This play is often seen in Physical Education classes. The teacher will initiate the activity and then the children will lead the rest of the play process.
Like most things in life, balance is the key. Structured and unstructured play each have unique benefits. Optimal child development is dependent on ensuring a balance of both.
If as Maria Montessori states “Play is the work of a child”, then play truly provides children with a chance to practice what they are learning.
Play really is the work of childhood!
How can you find a balance between structured and unstructured play with your kids?
- Leave time for unstructured play. (A word of caution…this does not mean leaving kids unsupervised. The presence of adult supervision to ensure safety is integral to the development of your child’s confidence and competence.)
- Look for outdoor play opportunities. Did you know that children are less likely to engage in bullying when they play in natural environments?
- Look for a variety of structured activities for your kids. Fundamental movement skills transfer from activity to activity, so a change up in activities will help to develop your child’s confidence and competence.
(Sources: S. Prowse, Physical Activity Promotion, J. Barreiro, Survival of the Fitness!)