Unstructured play using everyday objects provides opportunities for tamariki to use their imagination, supporting their creativity, emotional development, and problem-solving skills.

Unstructured play (sometimes called free play) sounds fancy, but only means play that tamariki spontaneously lead, is free from adult rules and intervention, and uses ‘things’ that don’t serve a particular purpose. These may include everyday objects like , , string, art supplies, a ball or blocks, or kitchen items.

Heuristic play is another name for unstructured, free play. The kind of play where pēpi and tamariki interact with everyday objects instead of proper toys, providing an opportunity for open-ended discovery.

What might it look like?

An example of unstructured play might be that when whānau are pegging up washing, pēpi joins them. Pēpi enjoys taking the pegs from the container and lining these up. Pēpi then uses the pegs as cars racing each other and progresses to using their imagination in driving a car, miming the steering wheel in their hands.

Whānau can contribute to the learning opportunity by commenting on what pēpi is doing: “You’ve got 1, 2, 3 pegs pēpi, all lined up. A red one, a one…” They might also make car noises and run around the lawn following pēpi and where they lead this playtime.

Why is this kind of play important?

Research shows that unstructured playtime fosters children’s imagination, creativity and ideas as they ‘invent’ their own games and activities.

Often unstructured play includes other people or imagined people which supports tamariki to develop social skills, positive interactions and problem-solving.

It’s also important in promoting independence because they decide what happens next and build confidence in their decision-making abilities.

As well as this it supports physical development – running, jumping, hopping, skipping or fine motor skills when they choose something less active, like playing with pegs.

There are many benefits to unstructured play opportunities for tamariki. Kindergartens, preschools, and also offer unstructured play to support learning because it allows tamariki to explore in the ways that suit their learning style and with their interests in mind. Unstructured play is now known to support curiosity in order for tamariki to keep exploring and finding things out while having fun!

Handout for whānau

Play when you’re tired or hōhā

This handout includes simple play ideas that only need whānau and tamariki to go outside and make the most of all that nature offers.

pdf 1.2 MB

Conversation ideas

What are some of your favourite playtimes with pēpi?
What does pēpi enjoy as part of their play?
When do you see pēpi use their imagination? How can we best support pēpi with this?
When pēpi is having a play experience, what role do you see yourself having?
Have you noticed any changes in the mood or behaviour of pēpi when they have ample opportunities for unstructured playtime?
What’s playtime like outside, compared to inside for you and pēpi?
Would it be helpful to brainstorm some easy play ideas and objects to support their unstructured play?

Helpful resources for whānau