12 - 48 Months

The Benefits of Unstructured Play

  • Facebook Icon
  • Twitter Icon
  • Pinterest Icon
  • Email Icon

There’s imaginary play, which is my favorite type of play. … There is social play and attunement play, including looking into each other’s eyes, which toddlers love.

Dr. Shimi Kang, Psychiatrist and Author of The Dolphin Parent

With opportunities for social interaction outside the family in short supply, many parents are stepping in as their child’s primary playmate. Is one way of playing better than another? In this episode with Dr. Shimi Kang, host Jessica Rolph explores the benefits of unstructured play and looks at how play prepares us for adulthood. 

Dr. Kang is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and best selling author. She is the author of The Dolphin Parent: A guide to Raise Healthy, Happy and Self-Motivated Kids, and her newest book The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World.

Key Takeaways:

[1:35] How did Shimi’s upbringing inform her work around play?

[3:17] Why is play such an important piece of childhood from a research perspective?

[6:10] We are hardwired to play.

[6:36] Shimi discusses a fascinating study that involves rats — play is crucial to their survival.

[7:50] How does play help children adapt to stress and emotionally process new experiences?

[9:18] Shimi explains the difference between free play and guided play. Why might parents want to emphasize one approach over the other? 

[11:19] Why toddlers benefit from unstructured activities.

[13:04] How can we tell if our toddlers are over-stimulated or overwhelmed?

[14:45] How much should parents get down on the floor with their children, or should parents play the role of observer?

[15:48] Do children need their parents to help scaffold pretend play?

[17:26] Tips for parents who want to give their children more freedom to play.

[18:55] The challenges of being mindful of technology and how it is impacting parents’ relationships with their children.

[21:03] Jessica shares her takeaways from the conversation.

Mentioned in this episode:

Learn more about Dr. Shimi Kang

The Dolphin Parent: A guide to Raise Healthy, Happy and Self-Motivated Kids, Dr. Shimi Kang

The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World, Dr. Shimi Kang


Play as a Foundation for Child Development

Jessica: Hi Shimi. It’s so great to have you here.

Shimi: Hi, Jessica.

Jessica: So you are the daughter of immigrant parents. How did your upbringing inform your work around play?

Shimi: Well, my parents were very interesting parents. They were both hardworking immigrants. My mom actually couldn’t read. She’s illiterate, so she was very hands-off, I guess, with school. She couldn’t micromanage my homework, of course, but she always sent the message to work hard and explore the environment. As immigrants, I think they were into exploration. And I think that really helped inform my play, my learning through trial and error, my having unstructured free time.

I wasn’t in a single extra-curricular activity. We couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t just part of what we were doing, and so that gave me this openness to really explore my environment, what was in my home, what was in my backyard. And my dad actually used to drive a taxi, and he studied to become a math teacher. And we used to practice math in the front seat of his taxi cab and look at the money and the meter and the change and the miles and do calculations, but he made it always a game. He made it fun.

He taught the five of us how to add, subtract, understand prime numbers and square roots by having us hop on our left leg and right leg and do all kinds of calculations, and it was kind of the way they did it out of necessity. But I think as I got older and really looked into the research and neuroscience of what’s happening in childhood, I really appreciated that firmness. I would say that the childhood that had firmness and rules and expectations, but also a lot of flexibility. That’s what I call the dolphin parenting style.

What Do Children Learn Through Play? 

Jessica: I’d love to hear more about that. So can you specifically help us understand why play is such an important piece of childhood from the research perspective?

Shimi: Right, so play is one of my favorite topics. It’s actually very sophisticated. There’s a whole science behind play.

Critical Thinking Skills

Shimi: There are seven different types of play and each activate a different part of our brain to develop very important life skills, and ultimately play develops an area of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. So that’s the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, learning from trial and error, being comfortable with uncertainty, innovating, emotional regulation, planning, all a lot of these really important tasks. So when we really look at the specifics of the neuroscience of play, we know that the seven different types are rough and tumble play and body movement play.

Gross and Fine Motor Skills

Shimi: And if we put those in a little category with toddlers, it’s really allowing them to explore their bodies in space, move around, twirl, do somersaults. And I know that drives a lot of parents crazy. It drove me crazy when I had little toddlers, but it is so important for them to be able to do this. And a quick story I like to tell is when my two older sons were wrestling, they were only 22 months apart. So one was probably two and the other one was close to four, and I found it a bit barbaric, and I was always wondering, “Why are they doing this in restaurants”? But then when you look closely, it looked like they were lit up with joy from the inside, and they rarely hurt each other.

And that type of play, that push and pull of the physical body activates the cerebellum, which is our social centers, and it teaches children the push and pull of the social body. And kids who have rough and tumble play and, in fact, wrestle are less likely to bully and less likely to be bullied. They’re more able to assert themselves and know how far to go, including social conversations. So, the science is so rich. There’s object play playing, meaning playing with our hands. Our hands evolved the same time as the brain.

Survival and Problem-Solving Skills

Shimi: We have 60,000 sensory receptors. Our hands are very intelligent, so that allows cognitive tasks or thinking, problem-solving. So young kids who are stuck on a problem, even as adults, we knit, we garden, we even do the dishes and we come up with ideas. There’s imaginary play, which is my favorite type of play, which is really connecting different parts of the brain. There’s a direct pathway there to innovation. There is social play and attunement play, including looking into each other’s eyes, which toddlers love. They grab their parents face, and they wanna look at you. That’s a form of play as well.

So it’s really endless science. It’s wonderful to look into this, and I say it’s a gift nature has given to us. 

We are absolutely hardwired to play. All animals in nature play. Dolphins, which I love to talk about, are very sophisticated animals, and the only way they survive in that very dangerous ocean is they make it a priority to play every day, and they allow their children to play. They form circles around so their children can play without worrying about sharks. And I think when we look at nature, we can understand our own biology better.

Jessica: And there was a study that you referenced that, it’s a rat study about play, can you tell us more about that?

Shimi: Right, yeah. So the scientists at the National Institute of Health took two groups of rats. And one, they allowed a normal rat childhood and they had toys and they let them wrestle and jostle. And the other group, they prevented any kind of play behavior, and they took a collar of a cat which was something that the rats would find dangerous, and they put them in both of their environments. And so all the smart rats ran into a hole, because they sensed danger, which makes sense. And then what happened was really fascinating, the rats that were allowed to play slowly moved out of the hole, they sniffed around, they went in and out, and they were able to adapt to this sudden change and they went and lived a happy rat life. And the other group actually died in the hole, they were unable to solve the problem that they were faced with, they couldn’t adapt. And I think that that scientific experiments really shows us the power of play.

Emotional Processing 

Jessica: Wow. That is so fascinating. And so then how does play, specifically acting out like these different scenarios or skills help children adapt to stress and emotionally process new things?

Shimi: Right. Well, stress is really a neurohormone, let’s say, of cortisol, which is not just bad for our mental health, but for our physical health. And we know toddlers are exhibiting higher levels of cortisol and stress, and it’s very concerning in childhood. And so one of the best anecdotes of that is play, because play releases the opposite in the sense it releases neurochemicals called serotonin. So when children discover new things and make inventions and creations, they get a little hit of serotonin. When they play together, playing tag or hide and seek, or peekaboo, they get oxytocin, which is our neurohormone of love and bonding and trust, and it actually grows our brain cells, it’s called neurogenesis.

And when they have imaginary play or they get into flow states, if you’ve ever seen a toddler playing with dirt, or bubbles or a blade of grass even, they’re looking intensely. It’s like a form of mindfulness that gives them endorphins. And all of these very powerful neurochemicals come directly from those play experiences. They will help toddlers manage stress and also really grow and activate those important parts of their brains.

The Difference Between Structured vs. Unstructured Play

Jessica: I had no idea there was a hormonal response to play. That is fascinating. So then can you get into the difference between free play and guided play. And why parents might wanna emphasize one kind of type over the other?

Shimi: Right, yeah. So all play is great, but play has changed over the years, and I like to give the story of Lego to really explain free play and unstructured play.  

Unstructured Play

Shimi: The Lego of my time, when I was in a childhood was probably similar to a lot of parents. It was unstructured, it was a bunch of bricks. I was the youngest of five. Mine were always chewed up and broken, but it allowed me to be the leader of the play. The results were unlimited, I could build what I want. It was very creative, and there was never a mistake, and that is the kind of childhood a lot of us experienced. And it really leads to more resilience and innovation later on. 

Structured Play 

Shimi: Today’s Lego, I say, is a lot like today’s childhood, highly structured, full of rules and there’s an end-product.

The Lego has a picture of what you’re supposed to create and a manual that goes with it. That’s not really the superfood of play that we want. That leads kids to be more followers, more perfectionistic. And we are seeing high rates of perfectionism and rigid thinking, which are tied to anxiety. 

Why Parents Should Favor Unstructured Play

Shimi: So there is different types of play, and what we want is divergent, unstructured play. Freedom to really explore, of course, keeping them safe and less of the structured play, which we often see in a lot of activities. So you really definitely wanna favor the free-form play.

Jessica: Yeah, I remember realizing that, that there’s this inductive versus kind of deductive thinking, and we really want our children to be creative, and so it’s so helpful to hear you talk about that in the that context of toys and materials. 

Jessica:One of your focal points of your research is not over-scheduling your child. Figuring out how to have balance without too many activities. What does that look like for a toddler?

Shimi: Well, toddlers really don’t need structured activities. I think when we look at the whole point of structured activities, we’re trying to teach a specific skill. Whether it’s piano, or soccer, or Math, but the developmental phase of toddlers is for them to really explore their environment, to get what we call emotional regulation, meaning being able to manage their emotions. And have a sense of social skills, those are really important developmental milestones for toddlers. And so when we look at what toddlers need to do, it’s what they naturally want to do. They don’t want to be kind of driven around and in structured activities, they like to explore, they like to make a mess. They like to do all kinds of things with their bodies and they like to make friends too. And so a lot of what I say for parents of this age is the most important parenting thing you wanna do is in some ways stay out of the way of nature.

Keep your child safe, of course. Don’t be what I call a jellyfish and permissive parent that has no rules or guidance or expectations. But don’t be a helicopter and micromanage and over-schedule. We actually even know toddlers are sleep-deprived because they’re too busy, which is such a paradox. And I say parents who are doing this are coming from a place of love, but they’re doing all the wrong things for the right reason, of course. We don’t wanna judge each other, but we also wanna make sure that we follow the signs and what works best for our children.

How Parents Can Find the Right Balance of Structure

Jessica: And then what are the signs? How can we tell if our toddlers are over-stimulated or overwhelmed and did you ever deal with this, like yourself as a parent?

Keep It Simple

Shimi: Yes, definitely. So I have three children and they’re a bit older now, but my oldest son, he was a really cranky toddler. He didn’t eat very much, he was a lot of work, I think. But I also think it reflected my own anxiety. I wasn’t sure of what to do, and I was doing what everyone else was doing, and everyone else was driving their toddlers around in all these activities and stimulating them and reading flashcards and books or whatever the latest rage was. And that was a real turning point because I thought of what I was doing and how I grew up and I realized that, “Wow, I had forgotten the simple things.” The routine, regular sleep, regular movement of your body, social connection, and play. These are the basics fundamental building blocks of the human brain during these toddler ages.

And it really shocked me that despite all my knowledge, all the Harvard training and motivation in child psychiatry, it was so easy to fall into this trap that I feel is a part of modern day parenting. And thankfully, I remembered my own mom, who always said that none of that made any sense, and she used to say common sense has become uncommon practice, and it helped me go back to my intuition and realize when you don’t parent from a place of fear, you’ll make better choices. And when parents themselves take care of themselves, things will become a lot more clear, and now you’ll parent from intuition.

Jessica: God, it’s so true. It is so hard to take care of ourselves, but it is the foundation.

Let Your Child Guide You

Jessica:And then for our toddlers, how much do we be involved in their play? There’s this talk of independent play. How much should we be getting down on the floor with our children or should we be actually be stepping back more?

Shimi: I think let your child guide you. The human brain is like a fingerprint in the sense of each child’s brain is unique. Some are gonna want social play more, and if they’re tugging at you while you’re on your laptop or cooking dinner, that’s a signal that they want to engage in social play. But if they’re playing quietly and you come in and they look embarrassed or shy, they want to play with their imaginary friends. So I think let them guide you, check in with them and ask them, “Do you wanna play with mommy?” Or, “Is it a good time?” And they’ll let you know.

Jessica: I find that my toddler and my four and five-year-olds really want to have me help them scaffold that imaginative play. Like I’ll say, “Let’s pretend,” and then we’ll really build on that story or the scenarios together. Is that something that is helpful for them? Do they need us to help expand their ability to engage in pretend play or is it something that’s more innate in them and we don’t actually need to be so involved?

Shimi: Yeah, I think It’s always good to guide and try, but if they don’t seem to need you, then let them be. Because their brains are really unique, and we know there’s something called play personalities, meaning some kids are more likely to gravitate towards, let’s say, collecting play, which they might collect rocks or rough and tumble play or a joker, they like to have pranks, or the director, who likes to organize everything. So we do have a unique personality of play that might be different between parent and child or among siblings.

Give Your Child Space to Explore Freely

So you wanna respect that and allow them to explore their own style of play and then bring in different types of play to see how they respond. Something like imaginary play or an imaginary friends: I say, it’s very sacred. It’s very meditative, some parts of play, and that is something they often want to do alone. It’s a time to be intimate with yourself. It’s a time of self-reflection. And so if you see your child playing alone and they’re happy, let it be and then just enjoy it.

Jessica: Yeah, my daughter will sometimes be like, “Stop, Mamma.” She’s talking and talking to herself and playing, and I’m just kind of quietly observing or wanting to engage with her a little bit. And she’s just like, “No, Mom, I am having my own play meditation over here,” so I love having words for that now. 

Do Not Let Your Fear Get in the Way

Jessica: Do you have any tips for parents who are just struggling to make this shift of just this more time for free play? Any suggestions that you have for families?

Shimi: I think the biggest one is try to get your fear out of the way. One of the things that I’ve observed that interferes with children’s play is just our own parental fear, and it is scary, like “What if they get hit by car if they’re out in their front yard? What if they fall down or hurt themselves if they go up the slide?” or “What if that child is mean to them?” And so all of these things worry us, and then we intervene too often and too soon or we over-schedule them and put them in an activity because we’re scared that they’re not being stimulated. And so trust human nature.

Readjust Their Schedule to Fit Their Needs

Shimi: They need social contact. So family dinners and family time, super important. Many need naps, and they need time in nature, of course. Humans, I say are biophilic. We love nature, and we need to be out seeing sunlight and the color green. And they need exercise and body movement. Other than that, if your child isn’t free playing enough, it might just be that they’re too busy or they’re too structured, so really look at their schedules and see, “Where can I free up some time for them?”

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

Jessica: I feel like you’ve just helped me take a breath of fresh air with that. So do you have any tips on self-care and our parent relationship with technology? Your new book is about tech, and I would love to hear like technology as it relates to parents and how hard it is to be mindful of technology and how it’s impacting our relationship with our children. Do you have any thoughts on that for us?

Shimi: Right. Yeah, well, I think parenting is no doubt stressful, right. We’re juggling so much. And one thing technology has done is it kind of has become a coping mechanism for stress. So when we think of the stress response, there’s something called freeze, fight, or flight. Well, our freeze is anxiety and control, and we over-control our kids. Fight is irritability and anger, and I certainly get pretty irritable in my parenting moments. And then the flight is distraction or avoidance, and that’s where tech comes in.

And we distract ourselves with our phones, we check social media, we go online shopping, whatever it might be. And that has become a coping skill for a lot of parents, and I think that’s… Step one is to recognize, “What is your relationship with technology like?” And then step two is to try to commit to using technology for three things. I say to care, to connect, and to create. And what that means, use technology for self-care. Count your steps on a Fitbit or check your sleep, and do meditation, mindfulness, your blood pressure. Whatever it is, tech is great for self-care.

Connect with others in a meaningful way in terms of forming relationships and socializing, and social likes is not social bonding. And create, use tech to be creative, explore your own passions and interests ’cause that’s very important for parents to show that and role model that for young children. So if you follow that, then our relationship with tech will become healthier and less of the addictive stressful tech that many of us are doing.

Jessica: I just wrote that down. So that will guide me. Thank you so much for this wonderful talk. Shimi, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Shimi: Thank you, Jessica, for all the great work that you’re doing for families all over.

3 Episode Takeaways for Parents

As someone who slips easily into director mode with my kids’ play, I can never be reminded enough how important free play is, and why it matters. 

1. Look for Toys That Are Less Structured, With Few Rules

All of our products at Lovevery are designed with this in mind. These kinds of open-ended toys allow kids freedom to explore and discover outcomes that are uniquely theirs. Free play encourages creativity and de-emphasizes perfection.

2. Make Space for Downtime

Micromanaging and overscheduling can have a negative impact on our kids. Make space for downtime — overturning stones in the yard or exploring safe cupboards in the house. Unstructured play develops the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for abstract thinking, learning from trial and error, being comfortable with uncertainty, innovating, emotional regulation, and planning.

3. Engage Your Kids in Rough and Tumble Play

We all know they naturally crave it. What is interesting to know is that physical play, that push and pull of the body, activates the cerebellum, the social part of the brain. 

You can find all kinds of playful ways to engage your baby and toddler on the Lovevery blog at lovevery.com.


  • Facebook Icon
  • Twitter Icon
  • Pinterest Icon
  • Email Icon


Kate Garlinge Avatar

Kate Garlinge

Visit site

Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, Parenting Philosophy, Free Play, Playtime & Activities, Child Development, Playtime & Activities, Parenting

Keep reading