Statistics show children are losing unstructured playtime. In this Parents article, Mindpath College Health’s Andrew Monasterio, DNP, PMHNP, discusses how LEGO’s new campaign encourages unstructured playtime and its importance on overall well-being.
Fashion designer and entrepreneur Tan France grew up as one of four children with two working parents. His parents could not spend hours carpooling France and his siblings from music lessons to soccer practice with math league in between. But there was plenty of time for play.
France explored the outside, gravitating towards flowers, which (in a portent of things to come) resulted in him designing floral wear that he sold to family and friends. Another favorite item to use for design? LEGO.
“We didn’t have access to a lot of toys,” France says. “LEGO is one of those things you can build one thousand things out of. What you can do with them is endless.”
Now a father of two himself, France has the means to sign his children up for all the things, but he doesn’t want them to miss out on those unstructured moments.
But statistics indicate many kids are losing unstructured playtime. According to a LEGO survey of more than 21,000 parents of children ages 6-12 conducted in August, the average child spends only 2% of their week playing. About one-third (32%) spend fewer than three hours per week enjoying play. According to LEGO data, 57% of parents reported the time their child spends on achievement-based activities like sports and academics has risen in the last three years, often replacing unstructured play.
“Overall, play is crucial to a child’s development, including physical and mental health and happiness,” says Andrew Monasterio, DNP, PMHNP, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Mindpath College Health in Isla Vista, California.
The importance of unstructured play
A 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report noted that play could reduce stress, fatigue, injury, and depression while improving range of motion, balance, and coordination. Further, the AAP noted that giving children some control over their learning, which can be done through play, helps learning thrive.
Dr. Monasterio—a fan of LEGO himself—says the classic toy (and other blocks) offer all of the above benefits. “LEGO and blocks are like brain-building superheroes,” he says. “When kids dive into a pile of LEGO, they’re not just building castles and spaceships as they snap and stack. They’re building neural connections, important skills, and so much more.”
“So much more” includes the sense of achievement parents want kids to feel when they sign them up for piano or team sports.
“When a child completes a LEGO masterpiece or a towering block structure… it boosts their self-esteem and confidence,” Dr. Monasterio adds. “They learn that with effort and creativity, they can achieve remarkable things.”
Unstructured play vs. achievement-based activities
A child may “play basketball,” but it’s different from unstructured time with blocks or the great outdoors. “Unstructured play gives children the space to be creative without specific rules to follow,” says Regine Muradian, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist.
To be clear, none of the experts Parents spoke to—or France–are discouraging caregivers from signing their kids up for clubs, sports, and music lessons. All of those activities keep children engaged and can aid in development, too.
However, Dr. Monasterio says he fears caregivers—often unintentionally—fill a child’s day with structured activities with the hopes of helping them “do better” in school or lay the foundation for getting into a “good” college. The well-intentioned plans can limit unstructured play and actually miss the forest for the trees.
“It’s not just about growing up smart,” Dr. Monasterio says. “it’s also about growing up happy and healthy. While achievement-based activities are excellent, going all-in on them can sometimes lead to hiccups.”
Dr. Monasterio sees these hiccups daily when he works with youth and college students. “These students often have high expectations for themselves and feel pressure to succeed,” he says. “They may also have difficulty coping with failure. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.”
For what it’s worth, a 2021 review of play habits during the pandemic indicated that play affected children’s emotional well-being and mood.
Ultimately, France hopes the “Play is Your Superpower” campaign helps families see there’s a time and a place for many types of activities.