The Benefits of Unstructured Learning

unstructured learning


Unstructured learning is the idea of removing the typical confinements of a classroom to allow young students to learn in unconventional ways.

It’s open-ended, and there are no set rules on how it should happen. Essentially, the child makes his own decisions.

Examples of unstructured learning activities are:

  • Blocks
  • Make believe and dress ups
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Sidewalk chalk

Unstructured learning not only helps cognitive development, but social and emotional development as well. Instead of sitting on a mat, unstructured learning encourages children to use their senses to discover the world around them, sometimes with the assistance of their friends and classmates.

Let’s go over a few of the benefits…


  • As children grow older and begin to progress through elementary school, chances for unstructured learning are quickly replaced with more time spent behind a desk.

Their recess time slowly diminishes until it has been completely eliminated from their schedules, and eventually they spend their entire day in a chair, pencil in hand. If children are not given the opportunity to partake in unstructured learning while they are young, they may find it difficult to learn things on their own later on.

Associate Director for Professional Development at The National Association for the Education of Young Children says of unstructured learning:

“When they’re learning and playing with joy, then it’s a positive experience. They develop a positive approach to learning.”


  • Unstructured learning makes a large contribution to the cognitive development of a child. Although it may seem like just play to many, allowing pre-k students to engage in unstructured learning gives them the freedom to create, make mistakes, and develop their own understandings of items and materials in their world. Once they have reached their own conclusions in a playful practice settings, those same conclusions can be more easily applied in an academic setting.

For example, if a pre-k student spends her unstructured learning time at a water table, she will develop an understanding of water holding capacity through play. Being such a low-risk environment, she may not even realize what she is learning. But, in a few years when her class begins discussing volumes, she will remember the subconscious lessons she learned at the water table.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study in which they gave two groups of pre-k students a toy that played music, lit up, squeaked, and more when you hit certain buttons or squeezed certain areas. They taught one group how to make the toy squeak and gave no instructions to the other group. At the end of the study, the group who had not received any direction had discovered all the toy could do while the other group could only make the toy squeak.


  • Unstructured learning also provides the opportunity to enhance the child’s social development. Through encouraging students to play and solve problems together, children will learn the social skills that are impossible to learn sitting behind a desk, including sharing, team work, and cooperation. Additionally, games can teach children structure and to obey rules.

Thinking about the way most playground games are played, even the most simple games like tag, each participant has a clear role that may change in accordance to the rules. In order for the game to run smoothly, each player must fulfill his or her specific role. Much like life, when someone does not choose to follow the rules of the game, it will not work properly. While it may seem silly that giving children freedom will actually teach them structure, an unstructured learning environment allows children to subconsciously develop respect for order and rules.


  • The importance of unstructured learning also extends to emotional development, giving children an outlet to reduce stress and express their feelings. The free time a children for play or activities is often times one of the only times a child will get to choose how they spend their time. While their parents and teachers may have control over many of the things they do, unstructured play gives the students an opportunity to understand the consequences that comes with making a decision.

While at a pre-k level, the consequences associated with selecting an unstructured learning activity may be small, even understanding that they must choose one activity or another can teach a child the importance of thinking a decision through. This lesson will teach them to apply the positives and negatives of each situation before making a decision and will follow them through major decisions in their life.

The choice students make during free time can display their feelings. If a student is missing his mother, he may create playful story lines where his mother is alongside him. Giving students the ability to use their imagination allows their emotions to play out.  It strengthen their coping and understanding abilities.


  • Unstructured learning is also important for teachers and aides. Instead of leaving the children to make conclusions and developments completely on their own, teachers are able to nudge children towards a discovery or encourage a storyline to go deeper. Teachers can facilitate game disputes or enforce the rules, encouraging their students to commit to the decisions that they made. Although the learning is unconventional, it is still important for the teacher to teach.

Unstructured learning allows students to learn at their own pace. As Meredith Gray, co-director of the Downtown Little School in New York City says, “Some children find the activity too easy, some too difficult, and some are simply not interested. Unstructured play provides the opportunity for children to engage with materials at their own level.”

While unstructured learning may seem like play time to some, for pre-k students it is an important time for development.

When given an hour of free time every day, children are able to use their imaginations. They can create story lines, establish rules and roles to be followed. Or they can support and encourage the creativity of their friends and classmates. These things are much more difficult to accomplish when sitting on a mat or behind a desk all day.

Balance is key, structured learning is important too, but that’s another blog post entirely…