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Is unstructured play too dangerous? 

The Ottawa Citizen: Study details the downside to child's play (February 23, 2009):
Listen up, kids: your teachers are right. Don't throw snowballs. Don't run, don't walk and maybe even stop crawling when you're around school. You'll get hurt. More than 4,000 children between the ages of five and 19 were injured in a year in Ottawa-area schools, according to a study of emergency rooms in the nation's capital....Children were most likely to get injured when they were at play or involved in informal sports activities. In other words, goofing off and being kids. The children most likely to be injured are boys between the ages of 10 and 14 -- boys in that age group accounted for almost a third of all the injuries.

Is this rocket science? Children are more likely to be injured when goofing off than when sitting in front of the television. To be fair, the authors of the study did say that they do not advocate parking your kid in front of the TV as a result of this study, but they also do caution parents and teachers against free play and say that the supervision needs to be stepped up. But have they really considered the long-term consequences of that? Let's think about this a bit:

  • If children do not have the opportunity to goof off and learn about their own physical abilities and limits, then they are probably more likely to be injured doing less dangerous things because they do not know their body's capabilities very well.

  • If children are only allowed to run, jump, and climb when strictly supervised, they aren't going to find it very fun and are likely to do less of it which can have detrimental consequences on both their physical and mental health (think unimaginative obese kids).

Kids need to be kids. Sure, there are some easy things we can do to make them safer, like putting bike helmets on them when they are riding a bike, making sure there is a soft landing below large play structures, and so on. But prohibiting or carefully supervising goofing off? That is too much.

In the book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about the importance of unstructured play and the opportunity to just connect with nature. There is a big difference in what a child experiences playing organized soccer on a flattened groomed field versus doing somersaults and handstands in long grass filled with wild flowers.

Unstructured play is already on the decline and studies like this put it at greater danger. How sad are these statistics (reported in Miami Herald: Changing Nature of Play)?
Three- to 5-year-olds have lost an average of 501 minutes of unstructured play each week, according to a University of Michigan study tracking time use from 1981 to 1997. Their older siblings, 6- to 8-year-olds, lost an average of 228 minutes.

Play needs to be child-led, not all of the time, but frequently. Please don't let fear mongering studies like the one quoted at the top of this post restrict your child's opportunity to play. Advocate for free play at your child's school. Make time for free play in your own family life.

Related Reading:
« "Mommy, I'm Bored" ....solutions! Carnival Posts (Part 4) | Main | Silken Laumann says "Play!" »

Reader Comments (23)

Absolutely. Kids need to be kids and today kids are in so many supervised activities that they don't even seem to know how to be kids anymore when given a little freedom. It is sad.

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterM. F. Chapman

Interesting post, thanks. I completely agree with you about the benefits of unstructured play.

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterblue milk

I completely agree with your post. Kids have their lives so structured these days, from after school tutoring to soccer practice, that free time to explore and imagine their own games and learn from their friends is lost. I've read last child in the woods and I think it's a book that every parent and every person that works with kids should have a read of.

Kristine, a mother of two shares how she manages to 'plan' unstructured play into her son's lives here: http://www.ourkids.net/blog/?p=287

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAgnes

Oh I absolutely think that kids need unstructured play, as well as an opportunity to connect with nature on their own terms. It's so sad that so many kids don't have the chance to experience more unstructured play time- whatever the reason.

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrenna

Did the study differenciate the types of "injuries"? Because my guess is most of those are bruised shins and scraped knees, and really, who cares?? Ok, when my 2yo scrapes his knee, it's a bit traumatic. But I expect that on 5-15yos on a regular basis, and would be more concerned if it didn't happen. In that age range, I wouldn't count anything that doesn't warrent at least stitches.

Even things like broken bones, although good to avoid, don't seem like anything to get worked up about. We put helmets on kids not to avoid scraped scalps, but to avoid *death*, and life-altering brain injury. If there's a reasonable risk it'll kill or maim my kid, then I'll see about discouraging the act or taking precautions (like helmets). Anything less than that? Meh. Let them play: that's a life-long good well worth a few bangs and bruises.

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArwyn

10-14 year old boys ... is this really different than 5, 10, 15, 20, 50 years ago? Isn't that the age group where boys push the limits of the physical self, skate boarding, jumping, climbing etc? Would we rather the be aloof?

I get that we do not want our children to get hurt. But come on! I would much rather see my children out there exploring, playing and enjoying life than being AFRAID all the time.

Wonder how many injuries Tony Hawke or other professionals encounter when learning their sport?

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterchelle


Yes. The study looked only at injuries that required the children to be sent to emergency care at a hospital or clinic, so we're not talking about band-aids or scraped knees here. The breakdown of the type of injuries is available on the story that I linked to:


April 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Some of my best memories of childhood were during unstructured playtime. I used my imagination, I daydreamed, I rode my bike and explored my world. I want even more of that for my children. There is quite enough time in life to have every moment of your day scheduled and planned. I try to take moments to watch my kids as they play - not to supervise, but to rediscover how to play. We should focus more on how to have unstructured play as adults instead of how to make our children grow up so very soon.

Great post as always!

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterbabyREADY

You can supervise all you like and children will still injure themselves.
However, the study is useful as it helps point out where schools (as it was about unstructured play in schools) need to be responsible. I would expect a school that my child attended to have proper safety measures in place and possibly to not allow throwing of projectiles such as snowballs. But heck, balls get thrown.
Unstructured play at school is, I remember, where we tested the world out. Right, so if you run fast with a stick there's a good chance you'll poke someone quite badly, got it.....

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMon

I myself was injured very badly during unstructured play at school. I have a steel plate in my right arm to this day. But I don't know, reasonably, what anyone could have done to prevent it. I was 11 and I was doing something I knew was dangerous, so I was doing it deliberately out of the range of supervision. Can we expect schools to overcome that? I don't think so. At least not without completely ruining the play experience. Setting up reasonable precautions is good, not allowing kids to be kids is not.

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

I agree about unstructured play. I think it is so lacking in many children's lives today.

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermilkmama

I cringe at the thought of my boy getting hurt, but that's part of growing up as kids, and letting go as adults. The lesson that you will get hurt in life and you have to get back up again is an important one. Yesterday at the playground, he climbed up the stairs and slipped a little and hit his lip on a bar (tiny cut). Today at the playground, he slipped on a different set of stairs and did it again! When he cried, I hugged him and said, "what do you want to do now, go up the stairs again, or go and walk in the field and see those dogs?" He opted for the stairs, and I was happy to let him go back. It's an important life lesson. Of course, I was RIGHT there. Leaving him to go to the park by himself or play without watching him every second (a freedom I certainly had growing up) will take me a lot more time and will depend largely on where we live, I'd imagine. He's only 16 months old now, though!

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLynn

I just had to chime in and say,Yeah! to all that. I have found my daughter to be really steady on her feet. More so than her friends who are constantly monitored. That said, I think it's in her nature to be both aware of her abilities and limits as well as cautious. It's pretty cool to watch. Let's see what my little boy is like....

April 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLeila

I agree whole heartedly. Children need to discover the world on their own. It is also very stressful for parents to try to control every aspect of their child's life and very unhealthy for the child as well.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjessyz

[...] point, we also need to question how much supervision is too much. I touched on this a bit in the post on unstructured play. One of the carnival participants wrote about it [...]

[...] may let their children do things that are considered dangerous or shocking by others, ranging from unstructured play to riding the NYC subway alone, because they think it is an important developmental [...]

yep you probably learned a few important lessons and now you won't do that unsafe thing again. It's always painful to watch a child get hurt but when they get back up they are richer for it. By the way what did you do?

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermike

[...] yet at least!), then they need to go with them and let their child take the lead. Let them play freely in nature. Let them touch nature. Let them get exercise and fresh air at the sa... Want to read more? Get Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit [...]

[...] about pushing kids into a classroom too early. They worry that they do not have enough time for free and unstructured play and will not have an opportunity to be a kid or to develop the types of skills that come from [...]

[...] it the school environment itself, which is eliminating recess and free time left and right, introducing academics younger and younger, and is structured so as to eliminate the [...]

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter“A Nation of Wimps&#8221

[...] and encouragement to play. We cannot let a few injuries here or there lead to a decision that unstructured play is too dangerous.The manager of health promotion and injury prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern [...]

Unstructured play is at the heart of what it is to play as a kid. Let the children play, have fun, and grow. If the child is always supervised they tend to be less imaginative. Only structured play i engaged in as a child was sports.Sports is a great medium to let your child grow both physically and mentally as a teammate and leader. It's also a great way to get involved as a parent. I coach one of my boys little league teams and it's been an unforgettable experience thus far. If you have kids on a youth sports team be sure to check out www.spitz.ca/playz to win their team new sports equipment.

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike T

[...] play is pretty en vogue these days.  Articles touting its importance, experts saying kids need more, that it’s becoming a lost art form, that without it your child may become a [...]

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