By Audra D.

Unstructured play has been a hot topic over the past decade, but you may still be wondering what exactly it is or why it is so important for your child. Unstructured play allows a child to play with no specific directions or outcome in mind. You might think of it as kids being kids or simply just playtime. The good thing is that you and your little ones are probably already doing many of these things at home! There is no doubt that this time brings lots of fun, but did you know that there is a lot of learning going on? 


Unstructured play sparks creativity and imagination by allowing kids to make their own games and tell their own stories. It gives children a sense of independence and self-confidence. This category of play helps to develop problem-solving abilities and allows children to experiment without feeling as if they are making mistakes. When there are friends or siblings invited, unstructured play provides an opportunity to build important social skills. Children have the opportunity to take turns leading and listening as well as sharing and making decisions together. Unstructured play can also get kids moving and helps build gross and fine motor skills. All of these things are contributing to healthy brain development. Play has been shown to strengthen neurons within the frontal cortex of the brain that is responsible for planning, decision-making, emotional control, and social behavior.      

Unstructured STEAM

So how does unstructured play relate to STEAM? Well, science, technology, engineering, art, and math are all around us and are most likely a part of your child’s play already. For example, playing with blocks falls under the umbrella of engineering, and observing nature outdoors can involve many branches of science. There are multiple ways to intentionally incorporate STEAM into your child’s free play. Try providing your child with nontoxic science experiment materials such as shaving cream, food coloring, and objects of different textures. (Remember that unstructured does not have to mean unsupervised!) You can do the same thing with a focus on art by providing art materials and encouraging your child to create whatever they want. Ask your child a few questions while they are playing. Try to stick with open-ended questions that do not influence how they are playing such as “What do you think will happen next?” or “What do you see/hear/smell?” These types of questions get your child making predictions and observations. Lastly, take some time after your child is done playing to talk about what they created or experienced. Ask them to explain the story behind their art or discuss their observations from any experiments. Let them ask questions and provide explanations for the things that they are curious about. 

Incorporate STEAM every day

STEAM skills can be learned through play and discussion, not just structured activities. It is easy to intentionally incorporate STEAM into everyday activities and unstructured playtime. Schedule some time for play and remember to be flexible and let your children explore. Invite a friend to help build those social skills and share in the fun. Discuss the results with your child and take time to answer any questions. You will be surprised by what you both can learn from unstructured STEAM play! 

More Information

For more information on the benefits of unstructured play, check out these websites: 

For more information on incorporating STEAM into everyday life, check out these websites: 

For more resources on STEAM and early childhood development, check out the EVPL Educational Materials collection or reach out to your local librarian. 

Audra D.

Audra D.

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