Learning Environments & Curriculum

Unstructured Play vs. Organized Sports

Young children need to run. They need to play. They need to cooperate. So how do we meet all these needs and still promote positive development in our kids?

Organized sports are OK.


They do teach cooperation. But they also lead to frustration (I’m not good enough) and they put a lot of pressure on our kids. Not necessarily to win, but rather just to go go go. Off to soccer. Do what the coach tells you. Then whisked away to swimming. Wait, that’s not how you kick your feet. It’s exhausting to an adult. Just think what it does to a child?

Unstructured play, on the other hand, promotes creativity.

Critical thinking is required to figure out how to get that rock under the water without falling into the creek. If more than one child is playing, cooperation just naturally occurs. They team up to solve a problem or create a specific “story” in their play.

I challenge you to watch and listen. Nothing else, just watch and listen. Go to one of the kids games. What do you see. Is there a lot of laughter? Are the children solving problems? How are they after the game? Tired? Unmotivated?

Now go out into nature. Do the same thing? What do  you see? What conversations are you hearing? How relaxed are they on the way home?

Where would you rather be? Think about it.

3 thoughts on “Unstructured Play vs. Organized Sports

  1. I think all things come with balance. You mentioned go to soccer and then off to swimming and that might be the issue there, not just organized activities, but how many and how often.

    I live in a town that worships sports so I tend to lean too heavily against organized sports, but I recognize that it can be very good for kids. Swimming for instance is one activity that can be a life long exercise plan from young child to senior citizen.

    The question often is the quality of the program and the over emphasis on sports over everything else. In the beginning when our area started to charge for sports and activities some parents were outraged, but secretly others have almost been relieved to have an excuse to limit their children’s participation to one sport/one activity per season and use the excuse that it is just too expensive. Sadly others will mortgage the house to make sure their children are on every travel team in the state, but again it is about choice not about the evil of sports. If parents didn’t push the must have every hour of every day filled with sports activities there wouldn’t be a market for these programs either.

    There is a huge benefit in unstructured play where children learn to amuse themselves, explore the world around them, and learn what other interests they have apart from structured play activities. These often lead kids to explore life time interests.

    1. Organized sports for older children who want to play can be very beneficial. They can learn about commitment, teamwork and how to lose with grace. But for younger children it simply creates far more stress. Learn to swim, then go play in the water. Nothing more.

      Unstructured play benefits so many areas of development. You mention amusement. Children in our culture don’t know how to amuse themselves. Studies show that kids spend an average of NINE hours a day using electronics. And as children explore and find interests, they are developing problem solving skills (how do I get a look at that flower across the creek?), they develop imagination (how many props can that stick become during play), their curiosity is enhanced and nurtured (hey mom/teacher, what is the name of this thing? what does it do?), and most important for children and adults alike – Being out in nature, simply relaxing and doing what our minds and bodies lead us to, reduces stress enzymes in the brain, helps us to sleep better, keeps our body weight in check and creates a bond with the world and people around us.

      Unstructured play is not just “play” – it’s a proven antidote to the stressful, frightening world we live in today.

  2. Great post.
    I’m in favor of a bit of both. Like everything else in life, you need balance. Kids need to learn to work in a structured environment and need to learn to cope with unstructured too. Unstructured, in my opinion, provides them with the ability to cope with the unexpected and learn to make the most of what you have.
    Both are basic life skills, so both are important.
    Thank you for joining The Really Crafty Link Party this week!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.