“FREE, unstructured play is a waste of time for kids and babies” an extract from the Sunday Mail on July 22nd, 2018. The article interviews an educator whom suggests that free choice, open-ended play that occurs in early childhood settings is a missed opportunity for learning.

Sadly this is an opinion piece that goes against early childhood research. Why? Well the educator at question runs an educational institute for babies from 6 months. These institutes (that charge a fortune for a 1hr structured session) cannot make money if parents know the true benefits of ‘free, open-ended play’. The article paints a picture of only two types of learning; FREE-PLAY or STRUCTURE. The educator then puts these two types of learning against each other as if the two cannot coexist. The truth is that play is not so black and white, it comes in many shades! 

I was going to write a very well informed article in response, but the truth is I’m a mum, short on time. In all honesty, I probably won’t ever change the views of an ‘educator’ with a strong hidden agenda. So instead I’ll invest my time in empowering parents to be their child’s first teacher and to give them the confidence in the skills they already have.

To demonstrate the powerful learning present in ‘free, open-ended play’ I’m going to give you a recount of my day:

This morning we woke up with a goal, it was a goal that I had given my family, to finish the vegetable garden and build a scarecrow to keep the birds away. We had noticed the birds flocking to our freshly planted garden. We noticed this from observation the previous day. We set out to plant the remainder of our herbs and flowers and used lots of rich language when doing so. We used our senses to touch, smell and taste some of the herbs. A few of the words that came up in our conversation were roots, foliage, dig, soil, spread, under and beside. After we planted the remainder of our herbs we set off to make a scarecrow. I wasn’t sure how to make one so we researched (watched a short YouTube clip together). After the video clip we braiunstormed our ideas for the aesthetics of our scarecrow. My two year old wanted to make an ‘Elsa Scarecrow’. I wasn’t sure how to make an Elsa scarecrow so I questioned it? she offered to show me how to do it with play dough. She then sat at the table rolling, squishing and modelling her scarecrow; explaining the design to me as she went. We refined some areas from the model and then started collecting resources to make our scarecrow. I asked how we were going to make the eyes for our scarecrow and she declared that we needed googly eyes. We didn’t have any googly eyes so we headed to the shops. At the shops we discussed money, the amount of eyes needed and the size of our eyes in relation to the scarecrow head. We returned home and continued making our scarecrow; taking turns to stuff, tie and twerk areas. 

There was a lot more involved in our day, there was thousands of opportunities for learning and conversation. Our day was NOT structured. We had no set time frames, learning objectives, lesson plans or templates. We participated in an authentic learning experience through open-ended play!! 

Do not be fooled by the idea that your child needs ‘structure’ to learn. Free-play does not mean that children are mucking about, bouncing off walls and disengaged. Rather it can be purposeful, with adults guiding, extending and evaluating learning. 

Our favourite Open-ended resources:

Grimm’s Rainbow: stack, build, pattern, construct, colour coordinate; the options are endless

Play Silks: is it a cape, a doll blanket, a scene setter or something else?

For lots more play ideas check out our:

Nature Play Prompts: full of outdoor play games and activities for children 1 – 12 years. 

Sensory Play Prompts: taste-safe ideas that stimulate the senses for children 0 – 3 years