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Sports & Fitness

Make Time For Play: How To Balance Structured And Unstructured Play

Nov 19, 2015

Every day, you make dozens of decisions to support your child’s health, wellbeing, growth and development.

Some decisions are big and some are small. When it comes to organized recreation and leisure time activities, the choices can be overwhelming—what to choose becomes a common topic of conversation among parents.

"When did you start swimming lessons?” “Are you putting your daughter in hockey this year?” “How many days of dance is your child doing?”

I'm sure many of you have wondered if your kids are doing too many activities—or not enough!

Like most things in life, balance is the key.

In general, there are two types of activities for your child: structured and unstructured. Each has unique benefits and the evidence says a balance of both is important for optimal child development. 

• self-motivated and spontaneous play • directed by children • are reported by kids to be associated with fun, pleasure, choice and freedom • examples include building a fort, climbing rocks or trees, splashing in puddles, playing hide and seek with friends

Structured Activities: Support Skills

Structured activities support kids in learning fundamental movement skills through adult instruction.  

These movement skills are often called the ABCs:

A: agility—moving quickly and easily
B: balance—staying steady while moving
C: coordination—using different parts of the body together
S: speed—the ability to move quickly

A range of structured activities helps kids develop these skills. For example, gymnastics promotes agility and soccer builds speed. Both develop balance and coordination.

Think about all the skill development that happens between the early days of picking daises on the soccer field and running and passing the ball!

These movement skills support kids’ confidence and competence, which helps kids feel comfortable trying different activities in different settings—including other sports and unstructured play. 


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TIP: Look for sport and recreation opportunities guided by the Long-Term Athlete Development Model. This model supports developing skills and participating in activities that are appropriate for a person’s stage of development.

Unstructured Activities: Let Kids Play

Unstructured activity is usually in the form of play. Play can vary in intensity—a running game like tag promotes heart-pumping activity, while building a sand castle is less physically demanding. Active movement of any kind during play can build balance, confidence and coordination.

Playing freely also allows kids to use their imaginations, problem solve and be creative.  

This is part of what makes play so important for kids. Kids say that play is fun, pleasurable and gives them a feeling of freedom. Some kids may not be interested in structured sports and recreation activities, so play gives them an opportunity to develop those same skills in an unstructured way.

Kids are often more interested in natural spaces than pre-fabricated play structures.

Play often includes friends, giving kids opportunities to develop social skills and learn how to get along. Whether negotiating the rules for a game or acting out a skit, kids develop skills for interacting with one another.

Unstructured play in an outdoor setting has additional benefits. Kids move more when they are outside. Additionally, outdoor natural spaces with trees, green spaces and streams provide opportunities to explore and take appropriate risks that structured environments do not encourage. Kids are often more interested in natural spaces than pre-fabricated play structures.


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TIP:  Look for spaces with natural elements such as trees, shrubs, water, boulders and sand that offer unstructured play opportunities.

Finding The Balance

How can you find a balance between structured and unstructured play with your kids?

There's no one right approach or answer. Here are some ideas to help set your kids on a path to lifelong participation and well-being:

  • Leave time for unstructured play.  If you find your child does not have time to just play, consider taking something off the calendar.
  • Ask your kids what they want to do! Encourage them to use their imagination.
  • 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 it is important that kids have choices. Hang up the hockey skates at the end of winter and bring out the soccer ball.

Sarah Prowse is a physical activity promotion coordinator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. She is completing a Masters of Public Health at the University of Waterloo. She enjoys coaching her kids’ soccer teams and being the dragon that protects their castle.

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