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Every school day involves some organized activities, or structured play, such as art, cooking, story time, peer play activities, or nap time. Child-driven activities or free play, allow children to make up the activity and the rules as they go along, to create within their own boundaries, and often to be surprised by their own invention.

Free play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination and dexterity as well as their physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their own fears while practicing adult roles. It has been shown that through free play, children can develop new abilities that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.

How much of the school day do your students spend in structured time and how much in unstructured play?


  • Chart paper
  • Pencil/pen and two to three different color markers


On chart paper, draw a large clock face, divided into equal sections, beginning with the hour that school opens and ending with the hour that school ends.


  1. Gather the students together around a blank sheet of chart paper to talk about the school day. Ask: What do we have to do or what do we always do, every day? List students’ responses on the chart paper. (Answers will vary but may include circle time, clean up, nap time, story time, lunch, etc.)

  2. Now, using a chosen color marker, work with the students to indicate these “must-do” activities within the hours on the clock-face chart paper prepared earlier.

  3. Next, ask students to name what they do when they can play at anything they want. (Answers will vary but may include play in the dress-up corner, build castles in the sandbox, play on the jungle gym, work at the cooking center or art center, work puzzles, build with blocks or Legos, etc.)

  4. Then, again using the clock-face chart paper, use a different color marker to work with students to indicate where on the clock they can choose and play at their own unstructured activities.

  5. As a class, talk about the school day. What parts do the students like best? Why? What do they like about some of their must-do activities? Why do they like some of the activities they choose? Why do they think it’s important to have both must-do activities and free-choice activities?

For the Teacher:
Based on the class discussion, the needs of your curriculum, and what you know about the importance of unstructured playtime for children, how can you change your day to include more time for student choices? Would specific types of unstructured time be beneficial and answer your curriculum needs? One example is children spending more free time in the kitchen area experimenting with measurement tools or making healthful eating choices. Another example is children spending more free time in the classroom library among books that illustrate the alphabet, numbers, or shapes.


Scholastics Magazine: Parents
“The Joys of Doing Nothing” describes research results finding that, today, parents often feel as if they are in a frantic race in which they are forever a few steps behind. Children today have half as much free time as they did 30 years ago.

Scholastics Magazine: Teachers
“The Importance of Pleasure in Play” describes the different forms of play and how it fuels the healthy development of children.

“Is Your Child Too Busy?” provides insight into the ways that children and parents can become overscheduled. The pressure to “keep up” can be physically and emotionally exhausting for both parents and children.

“Childhood Stress” provides tips for parents on how to listen to their children and encourages parents to acknowledge that their children may be overscheduled and not just complaining about all their activities.
“The Benefits of Under-Scheduling Your Child” extols the virtues of allowing children time to dream, imagine, and create in child-driven play.

“The Lost Art of Play” provides tips for parents on how to let go of their inhibitions and schedule playtime with their children to increase closeness and encourage self-expression.

“What Children Learn Though Play” provides parents with simple reminders of the skill sets learned by children though free time. 

“Why Creative Play Matters” confirms that creative play develops imagination and creativity―tools whose importance is now recognized  in the study of higher levels of math and science down the road―as well as in intellectual, social, and emotional development.
The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap (formerly titled Hyper-Parenting) provides insights to help parents make decisions about what might work best for their family.

National Public Radio
“Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills” provides a brief history of how children’s play has changed over time and how these changes have affected children’s cognitive and emotional development. 


Image of a Clock

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Updated on 5/9/2012