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Unstructured Play For Toddlers: How Important Is It?

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It’s a scene that every toddler parent knows well: You walk into your child’s room, only to find a chaotic mess of dolls, trucks, coloring books, crayons — as in, pretty much every toy you own — dumped onto the floor. And you think to yourself: What are they actually doing? Is pure playtime — free of any schedule — a waste of time? Hard as it may be to believe,  unstructured play is enormously beneficial for children’s brain development and well-being. 

Below, we’ll review the benefits of unstructured play and provide tips for making it happen in the best way possible. 

Unstructured Play: Promoting a Realm of Imagination and Curiosity 

There’s nothing quite like a child’s curiosity, and nothing sparks it more than unstructured play. Some parents may think that playtime equates to downtime — as in, something that only happens on weekends. But unstructured play is a vital part of the everyday, and that’s why so many child care programs prioritize it as much as reading. 

The core difference between structured play and unstructured play is a matter of intent: Unstructured play allows children to express themselves through creative means and provides them with a sense of freedom to explore. It also provides them with the ability to discover different aspects about themselves — say, what they like and dislike. 

Studies suggest that creative play can boost cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development, which are essential parts of toddler development. With no fixed rules, structure, or guidance, your child’s imagination has a real chance to shine. 

Benefits of Child-Led Play

Child-led play gives  kids the ability to express themselves and teaches and reinforces all sorts of life skills, including: 

  • Creative thinking: Children learn to think outside the box and create their own entertainment, which benefits their critical thinking and cognitive skills. 
  • Decision-making skills: When toddlers engage in self-directed play, they get to do their favorite thing:  make decisions for themselves. In turn, they learn to think ahead, which can boost their self-confidence. 
  • Gross motor skills: Unstructured play, especially outside, is a great way for your child to develop gross motor skills. Whether they’re in a public park or in your own backyard, kids will learn to use different muscle groups and absorb new surroundings. 
  • Happiness and well-being: During times of anxiety, unstructured play serves as a natural coping mechanism. Imaginative, self-directed play gives children a sense of control and helps them make sense of their feelings, inevitably improving their well-being. 

How Your Children Can Get the Most of Open-Ended Play Opportunities

Parents should get involved in open-ended play, especially during the pandemic. The best way to do so is to simply make sure there are plenty of activities, toys, and playtime materials around — they’ll all naturally spark your kids’ imagination. 

Hula hoops, cardboard boxes, blocks, and sidewalk chalk all work wonders, as do blocks, figurines, coloring books, and crayons. Be sure to set aside time in your daily routine for your child to enjoy unstructured play, whether first thing in the morning or after naptime. 

Children always love when they get their parents’  undivided attention, so simply hang around within eyeshot and participate if asked — you don’t need to do much more. The fact that your child is in charge of the activities: For a toddler, that’s the cherry on top. 

Imagination: Why it’s a Core Part of the Vivvi Learning Model

At Vivvi, we encourage children to participate in unstructured play and other early-learning activities that spark curiosity and imagination. The Vivvi Learning Model engages your child in a range of experiences, including math, literacy, language, and more. Our expert teachers will meet you and your children where you are — in the office, at home, or in our New York City campuses — and provide them with the individualized attention that allows them to grow and thrive. 

Interested in hearing more? Contact the Vivvi team today.

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