Did you know that coloring and building forts are helping your child develop just as much as puzzles or group activities? When hiring a sitter or nanny to assist in the child care for your family, it’s important for them to add to your routine. Does your sitter or nanny understand the importance of learning through play? This is sometimes referred to as “unstructured play.” It’s difficult to see a lesson in what seems like “free play” but let’s discuss why it’s important for your child care provider to incorporate unstructured play.

Structured play: has the child following directions and has an end learning objective.
Unstructured play: is where the child follows their own interest. It is through play that children organize and make sense of the world.

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Here are some examples of unstructured play and what it may look like with your child and the sitter or nanny.

  1. Sylvie had a recent visit to the hospital. When she comes home, her dad finds that she loves to play hospital, where she is the doctor and one of her friends or parents is the patient. Sylvie is using dramatic play to work through the stress of being hospitalized.
  2. Michel is into building. Whether it is connecting blocks or sticks and rocks outside, Michel builds elaborate structures. He is learning about engineering as he makes his structures. Sometimes his friend, Manuel, helps during their playdates. When that happens, they both also learn cooperation and collaboration.
  3. Dominique loves to play in the dirt. She digs, makes mud pies, crafts structures, and gets really dirty. Dominique’s creativity is developing as she forms structures with mud.

How To Encourage Unstructured Play

Here are ways that any child care provider can help to encourage unstructured play for your child:

1. Planned Free Time

Leaving time for open-ended, unstructured play. Having a planned day is great but having a window of “free time” is just as good. It allows creativity and a chance to explore.

2. Engaging In Play With Children

The willingness to participate in pretend play; dress up, act silly, and be creative. Joining in on the fun with the children: it encourages them and lets them know that you have an interest in things they like. It gives you a chance to see the child’s thought process of things in a different way. It also allows the sitter and child to see each other differently and have some fun.

3. Letting the Child Lead

Taking direction from the child and striving to follow what they want to do, not necessarily what the sitter wants them to do. Using this time to see more of the child’s interests and if they can discover them on their own.

4. Respect When Children Play Alone

Solo play is important and sometimes preferred by the child. Independent play gives the child a moment to relax and self-soothe. Like adults that need a break, children sometimes need a break from others too. As children play and learn, be sure to look in occasionally to see if their preferences have changed.

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5. Provide “Loose Parts”

Loose parts are exactly what they sound like: lots of small pieces that can be played with in open-ended ways. Often, but not always, they’re natural items. They tend to spur children’s creativity because there’s no one right way to play with them. Here are just a few examples of loose parts:

  • A basket of small smooth pebbles of different colors
  • A small container of fabric scraps of different colors and textures
  • Small blocks, spools, or balls collected in a basket
  • A collection of shells, corks, wood pieces, or nuts in the shell

Encouraging unstructured play not only helps your child but also gives the child care provider another way into your child’s mind; allowing them to discuss their development with you differently. Unstructured playtime gives kids the space to thrive in their own element of learning. Discuss the balance of structured and unstructured throughout the day with the next nanny or babysitter you find on Sittercity. Remember, there’s fun in learning!

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