Unstructured play

Andrew Daddo
Andrew Daddo 

It’s hard to know if this was a bit weird, a sign of the times, or a bit of both. 

An old mate with a new family has just come back from away.  He knows we’ve got three kids and with his two, thought it might be a bit of fun to get the lot of them together for - and this is what he said - ‘an “unstructured play.”’

To which I wanted to say many things, but simply replied, ‘a what?’

My unfazed mate carried on. ‘Unstructured play. We don’t organize anything and the kids play. You know? Like, we just sit around in the back yard and let the kids be kids. We still watch them, of course. It’s not as if we ever stop being parents and carers, but we also get to enjoy ourselves. So, they’re playing, but it’s unstructured. Remember how you used to date that Countdown Dancer, and the end of every song they’d do a bit of “freestyle?” It’s like that, the kids invent their own moves.  It’s totally the new thing.’ He didn’t bat an eyelid when he said that, there was no smirk or grin or inkling that he was having a lend.

He was completely serious. 

I’m not sure it’s helpful for us to look back with our rose-colored glasses and hope our kids can have a childhood like ours.

But it is a bit funny, isn’t it? There seems to be a small gap in old-fashioned logic when we start talking about the need for kids play to be structured. Or weirder, that unstructured play should be structured. Play is play. It’s mucking about in the back yard, picking up sticks and pretending they’re something else. Grabbing a plank of wood and putting a brick under it and trying to see who can jump their bike the furthest.  Playing is kicking a balloon through imaginary goal posts and knowing you’ve just won the grand final. Its putting a hat on sideward and pretending you’re a pirate or imagining a long dress and a wig makes you Rapunzel or Snow White.

Play something you shouldn’t have to plan – play is just play. 

Let’s be honest, aren’t we all a little surprised there’s a discussion around kids playing at all? Not ‘how they play’, there’s always going to be talk about that because some kids love to “experiment” with the rules to the detriment of others. It’s this bigger discussion about actually getting the kids to play – as if they might not want to - and how they might do it, that’s the surprise. 

I thought one of the fantastic things about being a kid was having time to play, wasn’t it? It’s about other things as well, like school and manners and Sunday dinner at Nans, but all of those moments involved new opportunities to have a bit of fun. The scariest thought is that kids might have forgotten how to engage their imaginations in a way that turns a stick into something else, or the hollow in a tree into a cave or a couple of chairs and a blanket into any number of mysterious worlds. 


No one’s saying kick the kids out the back door, lock it and let them work out a bit of fun for themselves (not out loud, anyway).  It does feel as if there’s a bit of a push toward reminding our kids - it doesn’t matter if they’re eight or fourteen - that the best games are the ones they think up themselves. Imagination is the best game ever invented, sometimes it’s a matter of remembering how it works. 

I’m not sure it’s helpful for us to look back with our rose-colored glasses and hope our kids can have a childhood like ours. Things have certainly changed for kids, there’s no denying that, we can talk about that another time if you like. However, what will never change, is the need for kids to play: To be outside in the sun or the rain or the dirt for even a small part of the day and being physically active. 

On the very best days, they might even ask us to play, too. 

Nearly half (45%) of kids don’t play every day according to the MILO State of Play study. This is an extensive study commissioned by the MILO team to understand views about play and its role in 8-12 y.o. kids’ lives across Australia. It was conducted by an independent research agency in November 2011.

What games did you dream up as a kids? Share with other members on the Essential Kids Forums.