The Power of Play: how free and unstructured play builds resilience in children to cope with adversity

The Power of Play: how free and unstructured play builds resilience in children to cope with adversity

We’ve teamed up with Ines Lawlor, an occupational therapist with over 20 years experience. Ines has written the following guest blog about the power of play as part of a series of blogs.

The benefits of play to children's physical, emotional and sensory development have long since been recognised and emphasised as part of the primary school curriculum.

In the second of her 3-part series of articles discussing the causes of and approaches to managing anxiety in children post Covid-19, Ines Lawlor presents the evidence* supporting the relationship between the deterioration in children’s mental health and the decline in unstructured play. She also highlights what teachers can do to create opportunities for play within the school environment or in collaboration with parents at home.

What do we mean by ‘unstructured’ play?

I think the best people to ask for a definition of ‘unstructured’ play, are children themselves! I remember planning my son’s birthday party when he was turning 6. I was delighted to find a company that organised and ran different ball games with the group (as he was/is sports mad!). When I told him about the plan he replied disappointedly, “But if we have to do all those games, we won’t have time to play!”

This summed up the definition of unstructured play for me.

Unstructured play is unplanned, imaginative, sometimes purposeless and completely child-led play. This blog on my website has a longer description.

Play where there are no rules (or rules invented by the children) and no adult ‘interference’ with slipping in learning opportunities (such as “what colour is the bus?” or “ “How many conkers do you have altogether”) trying to set more ‘sensible/traditional’ rules (“Why don’t you have 2 on each team to make it fair”) or pointless health and safety statements (me!) such as “Be careful” or “Don’t fall!!” 

Why is there a need for unstructured play?

As discussed in part 1, national statistics show referrals to mental health services for children requiring emergency assessments increased by 18% over the last year as a direct result of Covid-19.

Even though this is scary, the even more alarming fact is that children’s mental health was already deteriorating. Pre-Covid statistics showed the number of children (aged 5-15) experiencing mental health difficulties had risen from 1 in 10 in 2004 to 1 in 9 in 2017. This change was mainly due to an increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression), which for 5 to 15 year-olds rose from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017.

There are several factors which consistently correlate in research with an increased risk of mental health difficulties in children and young people: poverty, bullying, drugs or alcohol use, adverse life events (such as parental separation or bereavement) and parental mental health (What new statistics show about children's mental health | Mental Health Foundation).

Although these factors may have increased in recent years (particularly bullying with the addition/influence of cyberbullying) and services are increasingly stretched to meet the demands, some researchers believe there may be other lifestyle factors impacting children’s mental health.

Much research and media attention is given to the negative effects of increased screen time on children’s behaviour and physical and mental health. But according to some researchers (Dr Peter Gray is my personal favourite) it is not just the negative effects of screen time, but the fact that children are missing out on the most powerful mental and physical health maintenance strategy we have… carefree unstructured child-led PLAY!

So, why is ‘unstructured’ play so important?

Unstructured play has many important features that buffer the effects of adverse life events and help build resilience to help children cope with stressful situations.

1. Taking risks and overcoming challenges

Firstly, in unstructured play, children tend to take more risks. If you think back to your own childhood, most of us have memories of games and activities that we used to play (mostly unsupervised in the street or back garden) that now as a parent or teacher make you shudder at the potential danger. I remember flying down the road at top speed on my bike (with no helmet on - this was the 80’s where health and safety wasn’t invented) lying with my belly on the seat so I could go faster!! With concerns about increased traffic, parents’ work schedules, the lure of screen time and a general sense of kids needing to be in educational activities all the time, this type of free play has decreased to next to nothing for some children. But this type of risky play builds essential stress management skills in children (not the adults who are watching perhaps!).

When climbing a tree, for example, a child will naturally find their own limit. They will feel anxious at a particular height and stop even without being directed to do so. Then, next time, they might push themselves to go a little higher, gaining skills and confidence each time.  Through this natural ‘trial and error’ method, children learn to listen to their own signs of anxiety and gradually increase the challenge at their own pace. They also learn to assess and manage risk. This makes the world seem less scary because the children feel that they have control over their environment.

This feeling of having control over their own environment or activities is called the ‘locus of control’. Research shows people who have a greater locus of control show better resilience and recovery from traumatic events (such as natural disasters or wars). Children naturally develop a locus of control through play. As adults (I certainly feel this sometimes in my sessions or with my own kids) we sometimes feel we need to ‘do’ something for children to get the most out of their play or learn something new. But in fact, the opposite is true. Giving children more freedom and time to play (depending on their age as to the level of supervision required) actually builds resilience and problem-solving skills that will serve them for life.  

2. Imaginary play and conquering fears

The second feature of unstructured play that helps children manage anxiety is the ‘make believe/fantasy’ aspect of it.

Through play, children are transported to another place where they can make up their own rules. They can defeat the ‘baddies’, play teacher, ‘house’ or any other role they choose. In this way, children can replay or simulate stressful situations and pretend to overcome them again and again - giving them a sense of relief and control over what’s happening.

It is often the case that a child has overheard something said by an adult or on the news and may not have realised it worried them at the time. But if a child doesn’t have a space to process this worry through play, these little worries can build and develop into anxiety. Children can also ‘take risks’ with their ideas through imaginary play making them more confident to try new things and be creative in other aspects of their life.   

3. Exercise

Research has also shown that children do significantly more exercise when playing on their own than in organised structured activities even when doing organised sports. They tend to want to play for longer, take less breaks and challenge themselves more physically. This not only helps to maintain a healthy weight but also benefits their mental health through releasing endorphins (the mood boosting -feel good hormones) and hence reduces anxiety.   

4. Play is fun!

And lastly, those of us who have, or work with, young children may have had the joy of seeing and hearing them in a fits of laughter (where they can’t breathe or talk due to giggles) over some game, comment or (usually) bodily malfunction. Laughter genuinely is the best medicine and play allows lots of opportunities for that - releasing lots of stress along the way.

So, what can teachers do?

Well, in relation to play – less is more. As discussed above, adults don’t really need to ‘do’ anything except to step back a little and allow children more freedom, choice and time to play.

According to some researchers, children need at least 45 minutes playing to be able to ‘get into’ a game. Although classroom-based activities may need to be structured and teacher led in order to ensure the curriculum is covered, there are other ways schools can create more free play opportunities. 

Perhaps homework could be reduced (even once a week?). Longer break times, free-play (rather than activity based) afterschool clubs, opening up the playground or classrooms for play before school or allowing children to invent their own games with the equipment during PE sessions. Educating and collaborating with parents to create screen free Saturdays for example, or park- or garden-based (rather than activity centre or video game) playdates - something positive that may have happened naturally as a result of the pandemic.

There is also evidence that unstructured play impacts other areas of a child’s development such as empathy, social skills, emotional regulation and behaviour and attention - all things children are also struggling with more and more.

Whilst safety is paramount in schools, we should focus on controlling the environment (e.g. making surfaces soft and removing sharp corners or glass windows from near play areas) rather than limiting or controlling the play. Collaboration between teachers and parents is essential if we want our children to rest, recover and thrive post Covid… through the power of play.

* The information in this article is based on research I completed for my thesis in 2018. For a full list of references click here.

About the author

Inés Lawlor is an Occupational Therapist with over 20 years experience. She has worked with children with neurodevelopmental conditions, intellectual disability and more recently mental health difficulties in clinics, home and school settings. In 2018 she completed a Masters in Children and Youth studies (through the School of Education in UCD) researching the value of unstructured play on child development. She is passionate about all things sensory and the body and brain connection.

Inés also runs regular teacher training/CPD sessions (in collaboration with a special education teacher) on sensory processing in the classroom and Designing and running a class for children with Autism. 

We're proud to have worked with Ines to publish a number of books and resources.