6 Ways to Create Unstructured Playtime for Your Kids

Mighty Mommy has six simple ways to create unstructured play time for your kids and how to keep this playful momentum going as they grow.  

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #399

I grew up as the oldest of five siblings, and I can still remember how much fun we had hanging out in our neighborhood or at the nearby playground for hours upon hours. We’d eat breakfast, head out on our bikes, and wouldn’t return until lunch and then do it all over again until it got dark and it was time to eat supper.kids playing

Today, however, this type of unstructured play is anything but the norm. Reasons such as our kid’s safety in today’s fast-paced world, as well as the hundreds of organized sporting and extra-curricular activities that are now offered, seem to prohibit the free time my generation had as children. 

While signing our kids up for enrichment opportunities is definitely important, giving them down time and casual play time also offers important benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children get enough exercise and also have an hour per day to unwind, relax and have some simple creative play time. Mighty Mommy has six simple ways to create unstructured play time for your kids and how to keep this playful momentum going as they grow. 

Tip #1: Scale Back on Kids’ Activities

Does it seem like you spend all your free time carting your kids from one practice or activity to another?

We all want our kids to have as many experiences and advantages as possible, so we sign them up for Tai Chi, art lessons, piano, soccer, baseball, scouts, swim lessons—the list goes on and on. Regardless of whether it’s your child begging to join all these activities or if you and your spouse feel they need to be exposed to as many opportunities as possible, step back and take a close look at how much time all of these commitments take. 

Consider which of these activities you can trade in for a little family time. Get your kids involved by asking them which of these extracurricular are their favorites and which they can live without. 

See also: 10 Ways to Be a More Organized Parent

Let's say your daughter's soccer league has scheduled an away tournament on Memorial Day weekend and your son's play rehearsals are seeping into school vacation.

Time for a new rule: Set aside certain weeks out of the year—holidays and vacations, perhaps—that are non-negotiable family time. Assess situation by situation, realizing that even if your kids become famous athletes or actors, one holiday weekend won’t make or break them. But allowing them free blocks of time to play and spend their time without any schedule could lay a foundation of self-care and creativity that they might not otherwise know.

Remember that kids aren’t kids forever, and once they are grown, your time with and influence on them diminishes substantially. Take the opportunity now to develop a close sense of family and help them protect some of their precious time now before they grow into over-scheduled young adults.

Tip #2: Get Outside and Play

Let your child explore new places like a nearby wooded trails, a pond, sand dunes, an open field, or even a friend’s backyard. The key is to let them explore and spend time investigating and making new discoveries all on their own without any guided direction.  Mother Nature offers up free playgrounds all over the community so get your child outside to these different places and encourage this type of fun exploration.

Tip #3 - Let Them Create

This may sound like a simple concept, but it’s often overlooked in our busy, chaotic days of parenting. Though we all get tired, overwhelmed, and distracted after a long day at work or being at home, and just trying to manage details like dinnerlaundry, and homework, we can’t forget that our kids still need stimulation and creative outlets to help them thrive. 

An easy way to do this is to look around the house and see if you have any empty boxes, paper towel tubes, even a stack of old magazines. Let them “have at it” with no instructions other than “show me what you can make out of this neat stuff.” A few summers ago, my then nine-year-old son came to me enthusiastically asking if he could use some of the cardboard building blocks we had laying around to make a project. When he was done, he excitedly revealed his robot friend, complete with two working flashlights for the eyes. Check him out below! Years later, as a teenager, he never lets a scrap of material go in the trash if he thinks he can construct something cool.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.