The Best Way to Play: Independent vs Structured Learning

Sam Flatman, an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Sport, explains why it is important to let children experience both independent and structured play.

As parents, we naturally want to make sure our children are learning as much as possible and gaining all the skills that they need as they grow up. While it can be tempting to plan out hundreds of different activities and sign up our little ones to every possible after-school club, too much structured learning may not be as beneficial as you might think. It’s important for children to have a variety of learning styles and play opportunities, including both structured learning and independent play time.

Structured Learning

Routine is essential for young children as it adds necessary structure to their day, such as knowing when to brush their teeth, to eat meals and to go to school. This kind of structure helps children to feel comfortable and secure. It can also foster confidence as children will remember their routine and be able to independently handle these tasks. However, there is a limit to the amount of structure that is necessary in a child’s life. Being at school generally means that all of the child’s learning is structured, except for what goes on at breaktime. Adding too many extra-curricular activities or planned out projects at home can easily become overwhelming. It’s also important to remember that children need time to learn independently, on their own steam.

Independent Learning

When we see our children struggling with their shoe laces, trying to figure out a new toy or looking as though they’re a bit bored, there can be an overwhelming desire to help them out. However, it’s important for children to have time to figure things out for themselves and to independently decide what they would like to do with their time. A constantly packed schedule means that children don’t have the freedom to explore their own ideas during play time. A study by Elizabeth Bonawitz showed that children who are taught how to play with a new toy lose interest much more quickly than those who have to learn how the toy works for themselves. Children who were left to play independently thought more and experimented more with their toy.


Scaffolding is a term which you often hear talked about in education. The idea of scaffolding is that you break down tasks into sizeable chunks and provide children with the framework that they need to learn for themselves. We can apply this to learning through play too. Demonstrate some activities which children might enjoy that they can later do for themselves. These could include finger painting, making a collage, collecting leaves for an art project, role play with hand puppets and so on. The best way to encourage children to learn independently is to build on their interests. For example, if you child is always interested in what you’re cooking, provide them with some props for a pretend kitchen, start up an outdoor mud kitchen, or give them some recipe books to flick through. The aim is to extend their learning by offering ideas which they can follow up on independently.

Praise, Praise, Praise

Positive reinforcement is a vital part of independent learning. Many children love structured learning as they constantly have a teacher there to check their work and praise them when they have completed a task. Make sure to use positive reinforcement as a way to show that you feel your children is doing well when they are playing on their own or making decisions for his or her self. This will give them the confidence boost that they need to carry on making an effort. Simple phrases such as “that looks great” or “you’re such a smart girl” can work wonders.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to learning styles, but it is important to find a balance between structured and independent learning for our children. We need to equip them with the necessary tools to do things for themselves without completely throwing them in at the deep end. Providing children with the time for unstructured learning and talking with them about how they feel is the best way to encourage independent learning.

About the Author: Sam Flatman is an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Sport. Pentagon have worked with over 5,000 settings to create innovative playgrounds and learning environments for young students. He has been designing playgrounds for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. Sam believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which can be integrated into the new school curriculum. He is currently based in Bristol with his two sons.

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