Just Go Outside and Play

By Emma S.

We live in a busy, fast paced society where unstructured play sometimes gets overlooked. As a kid, I was encouraged to go outside to play and explore as well as go to the local park as long as I told my parents where I was going. My favorite thing to do was play grounders on the play structures with a group of people. I would also meet my friend who lived down the street to go for walks around the subdivision. But over time I have noticed a decrease in children playing outdoors in my neighborhood. Whether this is due to a lack of time for parents to play with their kid, an unsafe environment or distractions by other things such as technology, kids seem to be playing outdoors less. It is quite common to drive past a playground and see no kids playing. It was reported that only 37% of 11-15 year olds in Canada report playing outdoors for several hours a day outside school hours (ParticipACTION, 2016, p. 21). This is something to note because unstructured play contributes to youth development by improving physical, emotional, social and cognitive development and it should be promoted as much as possible (ParticipACTION, 2016, p. 22). It also gives youth the opportunity to explore and be curious (Brown, 2009) and to use their creativity to come up with solutions.

Although parents may have many positive memories from their childhood with regards to playing outdoors, the concern over the safety of their child will likely overpower these positive memories. 51% of parents with 0-18 year old children say that they would like their child to play outdoors more but are too worried about their safety (ParticipACTION, 2016, p. 22). By worrying about things that may or may not happen, we are taking away from the positive benefits youth can acquire by unstructured play. Key things adults will do regarding this is removing all the “fun” play structures at schools because a kid broke their arm or was hurt in another way (Levesque, 2017). Instead of teaching kids the fundamental skills to not hurt themselves or how to fall properly, we take the equipment away or try and limit the games they play to ones we consider safe (ParticiPACTION, 2016). Unstructured play will provide kids with the opportunities to develop fundamental skills crucial for everyday life. It will also allow kids the creativity to make decisions about how they are going to tackle a task while playing. However, it is important to have a balance between structured and unstructured play.

Participating in unstructured play is also beneficial when playing on a specific sport team. A quote by Bowers & Green (2013) stated “informal sports lets them be creative and lets them take risks so that they learn what they do and do not feel comfortable doing in an organized, evaluated setting” (p. 429). This is really important. If youth are not given the opportunity to play for themselves, they may never push themselves out of fear of failure in the organized setting. This could potentially lead to higher drop out rates if youth feel like they are not performing to their capacity. Youth participating in unstructured play with their friends will allow new skill development and different ways of doing things without the pressure that can get placed on them when in a structured setting by coaches, leaders, parents, and teammates.

Youth may gain the sense of importance when adults support their developmental process by encouraging their participation in unstructured play. It will show youth that adults care about their development and that they are valued in their community as assets in the making. It may also provide youth with the determination to become contributors in their community because they want to be apart of something greater from their time participating in an unstructured setting (Bowers & Green, 2013).



Bowers, M.T., Green, B.C. (2013). Reconstructing the community-based youth sport experience: how children derive meaning from unstructured and organized settings. Journal of sport management. 26(6), 422-438

Brown, S. (2009). Play is more than just fun. TEDtalks.com. https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital Retrieved October 6, 2017

Levesque, C. (2017). Educating Physical Literacy. RSS 3042.

ParticipACTION. (2016). Are Canadian kids too tired to move? The 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: ParticipACTION

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8 Responses to Just Go Outside and Play

  1. jmunn1 says:

    Great blog post, Emma!
    I have to agree that in my experience, young people today seem to be playing less and less in an unstructured setting. I believe parents today are much more concerned with their children’s safety, not because parents from previous generations cared less, but due to an increase in perceived dangers spread through various forms of media. It seems to me that you can’t turn on the news, or log online without seeing or hearing stories that create a sense of fear and danger for the viewer which in turn creates more cautious and potentially paranoid parents. Despite parents knowing the benefits of unstructured play, their perceptions of danger cause them to hold their children back from free play activities and may lead to damaging their children’s self-efficacy.
    I especially like the section where you examined the important role that unstructured play has in determining children’s attitudes towards organized sports. I can recall playing games that my friends and I had made up long before I was ever introduced to organized sports. I believe this played a vital role in developing not only my movement skills, but also in improving my social skills and shaping my views of sport. Unstructured play at a young age is so crucial to young people’s development as a whole and I agree that having adults encourage participation in free play activities will most certainly lead to more well adjusted contributing members of the community.

  2. melissabakkenes says:

    I completely agree with you. I also think parents are too scared to let their kids play outside nowadays. It is partly reasonable why they think that. Once in a while there would be a story on the news of a child missing during their outdoor playtime. This makes it more explainable why parents are scared nowadays, but I still think this also happened when we were younger, only it was not mentioned as much as it is now.

    I also think that parents do not care that much anymore if their child is playing outside or is inside the house and using their smartphone. From my point of view, these parents are too busy working and taking care of everyone in their family. When I coached a team, some parents did not even know if their child liked the practice or did not even come to watch their child play on Saturday. I think, when these parents are getting more involved in their child’s life, this could also give the children a sense of importance

    Besides the parents being afraid, I also think that social media play a big role. Children of every age have a smartphone and they think that their smartphone is far more important than playing outside. This generation wants to be up-to-date and feel the urge to be on social media 24/7. For these reasons, these children do not want to participate in any activity inside or outside. This will eventually lead to missing some developmental assets. For example, positive peer influences or creative activities.

    All in all, I think you did a good job addressing the support of the adults and the unstructured play part. Playing outside will give them some unstructured play time and it will indeed allow them some new skill development.

    Melissa, B.

  3. leannewright2 says:

    emma great job! this is definitely an interesting topic to discuss considering what we have been talking about in class the past few days.
    it is no secret that youth take less risks are are more careful of free play in this generation than those of previous generations especially in an outdoor environment. they lack creativity to create games on their own and are often new play structures often create fear instead of enjoyment. my mother is a kindergarten teacher and i have been volunteering at her school in different ways since i was in grade one and in the past few years I’ve started to notice different trends among the children when they are let out for recess.
    when the kindergarten students are let out for recess they do not automatically run for the play structures as they older kids do or that the kids would have 5-10 years ago. instead they stand around nervously waiting for directions. when you tell these children to simply ” go play” they looked frightened and confused. without a bat or ball in their hand these children do not know how to play. they lack imagination and creativity and are unable to come up with their own games. recess time at elementary schools now are spent with children standing around talking instead of having fun and blowing of steam.
    this forces me to wonder what has happened to these youth? have they not been exposed to free play?
    this is an issue that needs to be faced with parents as they are the key root of this issue. parents fear and anxiety over their children is hindering there self growth and ability to master new environments with ease. we need to start putting real thought into how we are going to fix this issue now or their is no hope for future youth.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Awesome point! I definitely agree that society has lost sight of the importance of unstructured play and remains too focused on organized sport and the dangers of play. I believe unstructured play is key for youth to develop autonomy and develop the ability to make their own decisions. Allowing kids to go off and play on their own leads to independence, which is a necessary element to succeed in the future when constant supervision and instruction is not provided. I believe getting outside and playing is crucial for the overall health of youth. Obesity is becoming more and more prevalent in society, this is partly due to the lack of encouragement kids receive from their parents to get outside and be active. When parents are too concerned with the safety of their child, the child becomes accustomed to a safe and protective environment and experiences little to no risk. This becomes problematic when youth get older and inevitably experience a hazardous situation/environment in which they do not posses the skills or knowledge to handle.

    I also agree 100% that if children aren’t given the freedom to play outside of organized sport, they miss out on the opportunity to practice and develop new skills and challenge themselves to the full extent. It is a chance to fail when no one is around to create pressure. This helps kids to master skills and build the confidence to bring them into a sport and improve their game. It’s the perfect time to try out new activities and sports that youth haven’t had the chance to participate in, which allows them to bring other skills to their existing sport. The freedom of play is also essential to developing social relationships and learning how to share, include others, and work with others to accomplish a common goal/task.

    Your post offers great points on the importance of unstructured play and the role parents play in the development of their children. Play is undervalued in society and too much emphasis is placed on competitive activities/sports.

    -Mackenzie M.

    • Ryan L. says:

      Great post Emma, there were a lot of very valid points made!
      It is very sad to see such a decline in unstructured play by youth over the years, and I would definitely agree that this hinders positive youth development. I was very surprised to hear that half of parents are too worried about their children playing outside. I think it is okay to be protective of your children, but not if it’s going to lower their autonomy and take away their opportunity to be creative. One of the points that I especially liked was how the lack of unstructured play can lead to youth being afraid to fail in a more structured setting; I strongly agree with this, as children may get opportunities to build leadership and confidence in unstructured play that they can then translate to the organized setting. This point was also evident in the “Lost Adventures of Childhood” video, where we saw a child struggle to enjoy himself in a structured game of basketball, and then saw him leading the way on the court during a pick-up game. Hopefully, as the next generation of adults, we can encourage youth to get back outside in order for them to experience all of the developmental benefits of unstructured play.

      Ryan L.

  5. jamariobar says:

    Yes I agree with you that participating in unstructured play is absolutely beneficial for the youth so they can develop the fundamental skills crucial for everyday life and that there is very little of it today among the youth. For me I don’t put all the blame solely on the youth but on the parents of the youth. Parents have the youth of today have their children taking part in multiple structured sporting activities. Some of which the kids don’t want to do but their parents put them into it so there is no choice but to go. There is little time for them to do anything that they want to indulge in for themselves. They have multiple practices per day ranging from and one hour to two hours even two and a half hours which can be very taxing both mentally and physically for youth. Sometimes they have practice or games for tow sports in on the same day. They hockey practice early on mornings then on evenings is soccer or basketball or swimming practice afterwards and they still have to go to school as well. What time do they have for themselves to do what they want? I would say very little because whatever time they have after all these practices they still have to do their homework and assignments. Even when they are in structured play the primary focus is all about winning and being better that you’re teammates. There is no fun, no flexibility for the youth and there is very little autonomy, this can lead to many of them drifting away from the sport.
    Then you mentioned technology as it being a distraction for youth in ways that it minimizes the youth playing outdoor activities. I believe parents have played a major role in youth spending more time of their devices than actually going outside and play. Parents buy these devices for their kids for many reasons, for safety, to keep them occupied or they might be too busy to watch them outside. For whatever reason that they were bought the youth spend obscene amounts of time on them. One of the reasons could be that the parents don’t set and time limitations on them or to encourage them to go outside and play. Parents today are terrified of letting their kids do certain activities on their own so they would rather be where they can be seen and that they are in a controlled environment. That is fine but at the same time this takes a lot away from the youth. Having unstructured play the youth can develop their social interaction skills, creating their own sense of identity, being able to make their own mistakes and solve their own problems. These all go a long way in making them independent people in society.

    Jamario G

  6. taylorhebb16 says:

    Great post Emma.
    For someone that has a soft spot for nature it makes me frustrated and sad to see youth choosing to stay inside on social media verses going outside and using their imagination to create a fun game.
    The part of the post that got me thinking is when you mentioned how parents think back to when they where children and how they played. Parents seem to understand how important free play is for their youth, but it’s the fact that society has created the fear that children will be harmed if involved with unsupervised play.
    The film we watched in class provided the point that parents should not have to worry about their children safety while involved in outside activity because the world is actually a safer place, compared to when they played as children. The reason they think the world is dangerous is because we have the ability to see everything dangerous that is happening in the world. As soon as you turn the news on all you hear is the negative actions that have recently happened. No wonder parents have a fear of letting their children outside unsupervised.
    This made me wonder and ask myself, will there be a day that outside free play is eliminated completely? How will this affect our world and the lives of our youth? Will society be taking a step back because youth will be lacking in skills that they where neglected to receive?
    Outside play may be on the decline but it doesn’t mean that we need forget about it. School systems should be creating safe positive environment for youth to be involved in outside play. They have created the natural playground that involved a verity of different structures made from natural items found in nature. This will provide youth with the opportunity to be hands on with nature in a safe environment and allow them to develop different aspects to grow their youth development.
    If children are not provided with the opportunity to play outside how are they expected to develop an understand and care for it?
    Taylor H

  7. carsonmatchett says:

    Great post Emma.

    It is a real shame that kids are being limited to the activities that they are allowed to participate in due to their parents being over protective. I see this issue very often in the small community that I am from. Playgrounds and sports fields are always empty when there isn’t structured activity planned at them. In a small community with a very low crime rate and a general sense of safety and security I think it is very ridiculous that kids are not allowed to make use of these spaces because their parents are worried about them being hurt. I also wonder if this issues comes back to kids being “addicted” to screen time and would rather stay inside and play on their phones or video games. Gen Z youth spend an unhealthy amount of time in front of a screen and for some parents this could be an easy way to occupy their kids and serve as a way of creating time to relax and not have to worry about their child. If parents limited this screen time and learned to let their kids be kids I think unstructured outdoor activity would find a meaningful and beneficial place in their daily routines.

    Carson M

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