The Importance of Unstructured Time and When to Intervene

It makes sense that shows like Stranger Things are set in the 80s when childhood was less structured, making it more prone to adventure, abduction and alien beings.

Nowadays, kids would be hard-pressed to find that kind of unscheduled time for exploration. They’re enrolled in structured enrichment activities outside of school and the classroom schedule has had to drop recess and (free) playtime to create more “academic” blocks.

But it’s to the detriment of learning. Unstructured play gives little ones a chance to explore and create and these opportunities are much more likely to result in deeper learning and understanding—not to mention creativity.

When you present a novel toy to a child, give them time to discover it on their own rather than directing the action so it’s played with “correctly.” Ever notice how much more the child likes the box rather than the toy? Perhaps it’s because the box doesn’t come with rules or expectations for discovery!

As therapists, we have an opportunity to encourage our parents to sit back and let kids work through problems in play on their own. Allowing them to realize block towers are generally more stable when the base is wider than the structure or playing with the delicate balance of adding weight further from the center is more meaningful when they learn it for themselves.

You might also find that they create play scenes and uses for toys beyond what you could imagine!

When to Intervene

We do see some kiddos that, left on their own, will play repetitively with toys. Not just the same toys, but the same toys in exactly the same way. Toddlers and young preschool-aged children often enjoy “organizing” their toys in lines, so how do we know when it’s worrisome behavior?

If you regularly see this kind of play, consider getting an opinion from your pediatrician or another childhood specialist:

  • Organizes or repeats actions to the exclusion of other types of play or playmates
  • Demonstrates a strong drive to repeat actions in exactly the same way and becomes upset when the sequence is interrupted
  • Actions seem to provide sensory input rather than demonstrate a “new” way to play (ex. banging, spinning)


The views expressed in this blog are my own and are intended to inspire other speech-language pathologists in their own practice. If you are a parent, teacher or other educator, these ideas are not intended to take the place of treatment by a certified clinician. Read full disclaimer here.