Free Play and Structured Play

What’s the difference?

Children playing on their own will soon organize a game. They’ll make up rules that flow easily, bend them as needed, and enforce them loudly. When children lead play, it’s often called “free play.” But free play applies to adults too. College students playing Frisbee during a snowstorm are making it up as they go. Free play is free flowing and comes from the players themselves.

The alternative is play organized by someone else. Team sports are an example. A coach usually decides who will play what role and has the ability to substitute one player for another during the course of a game. The opinions of individual players may or may not be considered. The game has a defined format, time period, and rules determined in advance. This is “structured play.” Players participate knowing they must follow an external set of rules. Those rules might be rigid or loose, depending on the game and the person or people leading the play.

Free play in children

Characteristics Benefits Examples
  • Playful
  • Child initiated and directed
  • Child limited and arbitrated
  • Child-to-child rule making and negotiating
  • Spontaneous start and stop
  • Free flowing and imaginative
  • Flexible
  • Self-regulation
  • Conflict negotiation
  • Problem solving
  • Social-emotional growth
  • Persistence
  • Resilience
  • Collaboration
  • Tag, chase
  • Rough and tumble
  • Building
  • Making forts
  • Invented games
  • Playground games
  • Pretending

Structured play in children

Characteristics Benefits Examples
  • Predetermined rules and roles
  • Usually adult organized and led
  • Predetermined materials
  • Defined start and stop time
  • Defined format and length
  • Cooperative play
  • Teamwork
  • Sportsmanship
  • Following directions
  • Strategy
  • Team sports
  • Lessons: music, art, dance, other
  • Adult organized and directed games and activities
  • Toys and board games with structured outcomes