The Undeniable Benefits of Unstructured Play

Kids Learn Skills During Unstructured PlayWe may be a little biased at Play Mart, but we sincerely believe in the power of play for child development. Unlocking creativity, imagination, and strength, play is a vital ingredient in a child’s healthy brain development. Through play, young children engage with the world, gaining valuable skills and tackling fears. It’s an opportunity for them to master tasks and take on adult roles alongside peers or caregivers. By exploring their interests and learning how to work in groups, children develop confidence, resilience, and crucial social skills like negotiation and conflict resolution. Above all, play is a cherished and simple joy of childhood.

Unstructured free play, in particular, has its own set of benefits. While adult involvement is valuable, too much control can hinder the benefits of play, like creativity, leadership, and teamwork. When play is driven by the child, decision-making and self-advocacy are strengthened, allowing them to pursue their passions at their own pace. Read on to learn why your daycare, school, church, or rec center should encourage free play for the children in your care.

What is structured play?

Structured play involves a specific purpose, task, or learning objective. This form of play is common in schools and extracurriculars, as it includes activities like sports and board games with clear rules. By following instructions and working towards a clear goal, such as winning a game or following a recipe, children learn to work within boundaries. Most often structured play is led by adult caregivers, such as parents and teachers.

What is unstructured play?

Unstructured play, also called “free play,” is an extraordinary category of play that allows children to explore their imagination without any specific objectives. Unlike structured play, there are no instructions or strategies involved.

Child-led and creative, unstructured play empowers little ones to take charge of their playtime. Whether they play alone or with others, like peers, siblings, or parents, this type of play encourages improvisation and pure enjoyment.

Picture this: building a free-form city with blocks or singing silly songs at the top of their lungs. These are fantastic examples of unstructured play, where the focus is on self-expression and imagination. On the other hand, structured play, like following instructions for a Lego kit or singing songs about the days of the week, also has its place in a child’s development.

Both forms of play are equally important and fulfill essential needs in early childhood development. So, let’s dive into why unstructured play is so vital for their development.

Why is unstructured play important?

There is something to be said for “letting kids be kids!” Let the kids in your care explore and grow through freely chosen play, which is essential for their healthy development. From infancy until adolescence, see why you should allow the chance to engage in unstructured activities that benefit the whole child:

Social Development

Unstructured Play is Beneficial to All ChildrenIn free play, kids learn invaluable lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom. By engaging with peers and navigating the dynamics of play, children develop fairness, turn-taking, and the ability to cooperate. They don’t give up easily, building persistence along the way.

But it doesn’t stop there. Through play with their peers, children learn to master the art of communication. Studies reveal that when playing with other children, kids naturally use more complex language compared to interactions with adults. Pretend play forces them to communicate abstract concepts, utilizing more advanced language to convey their ideas to their peers.

Participating in unstructured group play lays the foundation for children to think more cooperatively rather than focus on their needs. By immersing themselves in interactive play, children gain the necessary tools to thrive socially.


In unstructured play, children come together to tackle challenges and solve problems. From deciding who goes first in a game to establishing rules for their own games, these activities foster teamwork and critical thinking. With proper supervision, allowing children the time to work through their own conflicts and questions is key.

Research supports the notion that free play encourages problem-solving skills that transfer to the classroom and other environments. Unstructured playground activities provide a breeding ground for problem-solving skills to flourish. These skills are vital for their cognitive development and critical thinking abilities.

Emotional Development

Unstructured Play on the PlaygroundUnstructured playtime is essential for developing self-regulation skills in children. Self-regulation is the ability to control impulses, emotions, and express emotions appropriately. It is developed through activities like imaginative play, where children negotiate and compromise with each other. Solitary play also promotes self-regulation as children use their imagination to create scenarios and inhibit their perceptions.

Self-regulation is crucial at all ages, and its development in early childhood predicts adult outcomes. Therefore, it is essential to build self-regulation skills during the early years. In fact, mental health professionals use unstructured play as a type of therapy for children. The benefits of unstructured play and its positive impact on self-regulation make it worth ensuring the children in your care have a great playground for free play.

Creative Development

Let their imagination run wild! Unstructured play is a catalyst for creativity. Whether it’s inventing captivating stories during fantasy play or unleashing visual creativity through art activities, children are constantly finding new ways to entertain themselves.

Unstructured play provides a safe haven for children to explore their creativity without rules or expectations. There are endless possibilities when children of different ages come together, sharing a plethora of ideas, interests, and abilities. This diverse environment fosters innovation and open-mindedness, allowing them to learn from one another, experiment, and create their own imaginative games and narratives.

And the benefits of creative play don’t end there. This creative mindset extends beyond playtime and spills over into academic pursuits and future careers. By thinking critically and finding innovative solutions to problems, children who embrace unstructured play are preparing themselves for success.

The Freedom of the Playground

The playground is one of the best places to encourage unstructured play. According to the CDC, “During recess, students are encouraged to be physically active and engaged with their peers in activities of their choice, at all grade levels, kindergarten through 12th grade. Recess benefits students by:

  • Increasing physical activity.
  • Improving memory, attention, and concentration.
  • Improving concentration in the classroom.
  • Reducing disruptive behavior in the classroom.
  • Improving their social and emotional development.”

Here are some great examples of how the children in your care can use playground equipment as the foundation for free play:

Independent Free Play

  • Climbing and sliding: Your children can imagine scaling a mountain on a rock climber (check out the Apex and Flagstaff) and feel the wind in their hair as they slide down a wave slide like you’ll find on the Cougar.
  • Swinging: What better place for a child to let their mind wander and contemplate the world than on one of our RSP Swingsets?
  • Beams and Steppers: A child can focus on their agility and physical development as they step along the challenging Quad Block Steppers or Stump Walk.

Group Free Play

  • Playground Musical Instruments: Put together a few of our musical instruments for the playground, like the Double Drum Table and Pagoda Bells, and watch your young ones fuel their creative development by making a tune all their own!
  • Fantasy Play: Our playground equipment is great for group pretend play. The Castle Court is the perfect example of how your kids can engage in role-playing and fantasizing about a magical kingdom!
  • Inclusive Play: Every child should benefit from the joys of unstructured play. An accessible playset, like the Coral Reef, is ideal for children of all abilities to engage in group play that fosters healthy social skills.

Why let loose with Play Mart?

You have many choices of products for your daycare, preschool, church, or rec center to help your children engage in unstructured play. Our child experts at Play Mart are driven by the well-being of kids, not just the bottom line. Play Mart creates eco-friendly playground equipment from Recycled Structural Plastic (RSP), ensuring that your children can explore, grow, and have fun in a healthy and sustainable way.

As pioneers in the industry, we’ve been designing and installing playground equipment nationwide for over 40 years. Our innovative recycled plastic formula ensures durability and weather resistance, preventing rot, chipping, and fading. When you purchase playground equipment from Play Mart, you invest in a thrilling and safe environment for children.

With our team of industrial designers and engineers, we manufacture top-quality outdoor play equipment specifically designed to foster child development through free play. You can even practice your own free reign with our custom designs and themed options! Plus, we offer a leading warranty on all our products, so you can trust our products to stand the test of time. Contact Play Mart today and let your kids be liberated through the freedom of unstructured play!

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"I'm not sure whether the kids would have caused damage to the playset at some point, but the playground survived the hurricane. Your RSP™ is amazing."

Tim H. Gateway Services Community Development District

Ft Myers, FL

“I would just like to let you know Play Mart did a wonderful job on the packing/shipping and installation instructions. We have installed almost every manufacturer in the market and your company is the most installation friendly we have done in years.”

Playground Installation Crew


“The contractor who assembled the set told me it was his first experience with recycled material in play sets and he was very impressed. He also told me it was very well packaged and user friendly for assembly.

It looks first class and blends in well with the wooded area surrounding our church. We like the fact we can accommodate so many kids with a set this size.”

Bruce P.

Topeka, KS

“This is cooler than big kids stuff!”

5 Year Old Child

Topeka, KS

“Congratulations on your extensive and impressive exhibit of your playground products. I was most impressed. If I were a child, I would spend a lot of time in the music section of your marvelous array of enticing things to do. But on the other hand, I could easily be enticed to the many other play opportunities for play and learning.

It is blatantly obvious that you have put a lot of careful thought into developing your engaging products for children. Congratulations and thank you for the tour of your exhibit at the trade show.”

Matthew Evans, FASLA Senior Landscape Architect & Horticulturist

US Capitol, Washington, DC

“It gives me great pleasure to be able to write a letter on behalf of Play Mart, Inc. On two different occasions in recent years, Play Mart constructed playground equipment on our school property. Play Mart representatives went out of their way to meet with the school playground committee so that we fully understand our options and the cost. We have been delighted with the equipment that Play Mart representatives recommended for our students. It is age appropriate and safe. We have had to make two minor repairs, which were quickly taken care of by the company.
In the process building the playground, we were very interested in using recycled materials. Availability of this via Play Mart was a big reason why we choose this company. Play Mart worked with us in obtaining exactly what we wanted. We were very pleased with the construction timeline and the value for the price. When we wanted to add more equipment, Play Mart was most helpful and made the changes cost effective for us. Our students spend many happy hours enjoying the playground.

We have been very happy with the entire project. It is with great satisfaction I write this letter on behalf of the company and their employees.”

Sister Laverne K., School Principal

Newark, DE

“We continue to be so pleased with our playscape! As soon as we open the door in preparation for outside play, the children head straight for the playscape. The teachers so enjoy watching the students play some of their favorite games which include: Pirate Ship (they all crowd on top of the playscape sailing off for adventure of the high seas), Shark! (similar to pirate ship but they all stand on top screaming “shark”), and Ice cream shop (sellers stand under the playscape and deliver ice cream cones to customers on the other side of the ‘counter’).
We thank you again for working so closely with us as we designed this safe and sturdy play area to fit the needs of our Nursery School. It has been one year and it still looks great, blending beautifully into our historic town green. Both our school and our community look forward to many, many more years of fun!”

Laurie H., Daycare Director

Washington, CT

“Our entire church is excited with the equipment and especially glad we saved 32,226 milk jugs from a landfill. We love the look of wood without the problems of termites and splintering.”

Joyce W.

Jacksonville, AR

“I wanted to drop you a quick note to commend you on your subcontractor’s performance…The combination of your quality equipment and the installation by Hammer Down has provided the staff, children and Marine Corp with an excellent play facility. The installation and application of the equipment has turned out superbly.  Hammer Down, Paul and his entire crew were pleasant to work with, knowledgeable of the equipment and codes and had an uncommon willingness to work well with us and other contractors. I commend them for an excellent install and terrific attitude.

As for the poured in place rubber; again a superb product paired with a great subcontractor. Clean Play, Allen and his crew provided a level of work that would be hard to surpass. The installation went smoothly and quickly. I appreciate their attention to detail and cleanliness. Though we may have stayed late, I never have an issue doing that for a contractor that works as hard and diligently as they did each and every day. There performance was outstanding and one I would look forward to seeing again.

I appreciate all of your help and you providing us with such high quality subcontractors. Thank you.”

Mike R., Superintendent

Sauer, Inc.