Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

To Play or Not to Play?

(This is the last of four reposts from LEAPAsia’s social media page in China. We’re advocating for Chinese school children who we’ve come to see as slaves to the education system.)

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This week’s question is not aimed at children but their teachers or parents. Should children play? Of course! The question we want to answer is whether or not you should play with them. In other words: Which is better, structured or unstructured play?

How are structured and unstructured play different?

The primary difference between structured and unstructured play is who is in control. In structured play, adults (parents or teachers) decide what activities children will engage in and how. In unstructured, children make those decisions, and in fact, adults usually don’t directly participate at all.

The table below compares structured and unstructured play.

structured unstructured
adult roles choosing and leading activities; teaching children how to engage (physically and socially) making sure everyone is safe by supervising from a distance
child roles following the lead of the adults choosing activities; deciding how to engage
types of activities organized games and competitions; organized school outings; extra lessons like piano or art[1] anything the child chooses including indoor and outdoor play, free play alone or with other children, pretend play, and pleasure reading

What are the benefits of unstructured play?

Whether structured or unstructured, any type of play is beneficial. Since play is a type of rest, it has the same attention and learning benefits we talked about in last week’s post. In addition, as children make decisions about what to play and how (unstructured play), they learn to solve problems and set and reach goals. As they cooperate with their peers, they learn how to get along with people and control their own behavior.[1][2]

Some primary schools in the United States have been experimenting with recess breaks. Instead of only one, the children are being given four 15-minute periods each day to go outside for unstructured play. Teachers and parents are seeing a change in behavior. Students are “less fidgety and more focused…They listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.”[3]

How do you get children to engage in unstructured play?

When my sisters and I were young, my parents would often send us off, usually outside, for unstructured play. When we complained that we didn’t know what to do, they would give us choices. If you read English, the last webpage in the notes lists 100 ideas for play, choices you can give to children when they don’t know what to play.[4] I’ve listed a few of my favorites below:

  • Plant the seeds from a piece of fruit and watch them grow.
  • Listen to a favorite song, and make up a new dance.
  • Use old newspapers or magazines to make a collage.
  • Pick up a rock and study what you find under it.
  • Make up a new song or a new card or board game.
  • Make an obstacle course out of things you have to climb over, under, and through.
  • Take a walk and walk like a different zoo animal every 2 or 3 minutes.

How do you supervise from a distance?

In order to make sure children are safe and treating each other with respect, adults should supervise unstructured play, but from a distance. Besides keeping an eye out from a window or across the playground or an ear on what’s happening in another room, you can also sometimes follow up with questions like: What did you do this afternoon? How did you decide to do that? Who did you play with? What did you learn? Did you have fun? Why? (Or, Why not?)

To play or not to play? Sometimes the parents we talk to seem to feel guilty because they don’t spend enough time playing with their children. It is vital for parents (and sometimes teachers too) to spend time, in rest, with their children. But 放心 (set your heart at rest), it is also okay to send them off (or better yet out) to play on their own or with friends. In fact, it’s good for them.


[1] Kids whose time is less structure are better able to meet their own goals,” colorado.edu, June 19, 2014. (This study was conducted in the United States where a school outing might fall in the unstructured category. In China they are too regimented to be considered unstructured. Also in China, art and piano lessons may be too regimented to be considered any type of play though I have left them as examples on the structured side.)
[2] Council on School Health, “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” Pediatrics 131, no. 1 (2013): 183-188.
[3]  A. Pawlowski, “Want kids to listen more, fidget less? Try more recess…this school did,” today.com, January 9, 2016.
[4] “100 Ways to Play,”  http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org, accessed March 14, 2016.

Further exploration

  • If you’d like to read the Chinese version of this post, you can find it here:
    玩还是不玩?WeChat QR Code
  • If you or a friend would like to join our WeChat page, you can scan the QR code.

What’s your perspective?

  • Of course, we welcome comments on the ideas in this post.
  • We also welcome you to join us in advocating (before the throne) for school children in China.

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

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This entry was posted on March 23, 2016 by in LEAPAsia on WeChat, Melissa K. Smith, play.

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