Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Structured vs. Unstructured Play: Analysis of Emily Deruy’s “Learning to Play”

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UPDATE: Have added a reference list to the post, and some pictures that were in the initial word version but which may not have gone through earlier. Sorry it’s taken a while to get everything in here. Have been enjoying looking through the other posts :).

Summary of the Article

            My article for the midterm was “Learning Through Play” by Emily Deruy (2016), and was a very interesting one on recess times and play. In brief, this article looks at recess in American schools, and especially how to make play during recess times more effective for school districts.

More specifically, the article cites a worrying statistic where 40% of school districts had “reduced or cut down recess” after implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind act which emphasized scores on standardized tests (Deruy, 2016). Indeed, for many schools, recess and its associated play was seen as a “source of a disproportionate number of discipline issues and a headache for administrators” (Deruy, 2016). Yet, there is strong research which indicates that “play is one of the most important ways in which children learn” with multiple benefits, including improving “children’s physical health and social and emotional learning” (Deruy, 2016; Playworks, 2017).

Here, in an attempt to resolve concerns with play, while also recognizing its importance to children, Deruy looks at a particular initiative to make recess more effective at American schools: the Playworks project developed by Jill Vialet, which in 2016 had been active in 1,200 schools (2016). Through Playworks, a certain amount of structure and “adult direction” is introduced to play during recess times, and the goal is to allow for children to “play safely and meaningfully” (Deruy, 2016 quoting Vialet). To quote their website, instead of assuming that “play should happen organically” (Deruy, 2016), Playworks attempts to intentionally “create play environments that help kids be their best” (Playworks, 2017). How so? The organization sends or trains coaches who then “[teach] kids games and facilitate positive interactions between students” (Deruy, 2016). Teachers also play a more active role in the Playworks framework, no longer just sitting on the sidelines, but actively starting games, going around the playground, mediating conflicts and encouraging participation (Deruy, 2016). Importantly, the approach also emphasizes not using play as a means of punishment.

The results? The program seems to have found success on many measures, and is well-liked by schools. Indeed, the article reports that “conflicts have decreased, cooperation is up, and students are more likely to focus and participate in classroom activities” (Deruy, 2016). Yet, Playworks has also received criticism for being too structured, although Vialet feels that the structured vs. unstructured debate creates a “false dichotomy” (Deruy, 2016). Indeed, proponents have argued the addition of some structure has actually promoted more opportunities for kids “directing their own play” and developing games for themselves, creating a good balance of what children need (Deruy, 2016).



Many Questions to Raise and One to Explore

            As you read the article, there are many questions that are raised that are worth considering, although some, listed below, we will not have time to explore:

  • What kind of effect do policies like No Child Left Behind have that promote test scores as a standard for measuring educational efficacy? As we see in the article, the policy has not just an effect on academic achievement, but also on play, physical activity and recreation, that is worth exploring. More broadly, how does an academic-focused culture help/ hurt recreation?
  • Reflecting back on the partnership readings (Parent & Harvey, 2010), the Playworks initiative looks to be a project that has connected many partners including the public, private and non-profit sectors. However, as discussed in class and also in the Parent & Harvey (2010) reading, evaluation is an important aspect of successful partnerships. So, my question: How might we measure success of the Playwork initiative? What factors (rates of disciplinary action, physical activity levels, social inclusion) should we focus on when evaluating this/ other play initiatives?
  • What are appropriate ways to punish bad behavior? The article for instance mentions that neither physical activity (e.g. doing laps) or taking away recess time should not be used to punish bad behavior (Deruy, 2016). Yet, working in recreation management, this is probably the most frequent question front-line leaders ask: What is the most effective and ethical way to punish a child? On the flip side what are effective reward systems that could be employed?
  • Also, more generally, what are the benefits of play? This is a broad question with a lot of research support, but looking into what literature says about specific benefits of play, especially around physical activity would be an interesting exercise!

While all the above are important questions worth consideration, and by themselves worthy of developing a very detailed analysis, there is one question I will focus on for the purposes of this blog post: What is the ideal balance we should promote between structured and unstructured play?

Learning Through Play


Some History on my Own Internal Conflict About Play

            The article really was a fascinating read, especially as it explored the tension that is often seen between structured versus unstructured play. Indeed, reflecting on my personal history, I have been an advocate and player on both sides of the equation at different times: For instance, between 2015 and 2016, I had managed a school site for an afterschool program (Excel) with the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) which had a mandate to promote structured play. Indeed, not unlike the article, unstructured play was seen by management there as causing too many disciplinary issues and not being conducive to reaching physical activity goals. Indeed, my particular site was often praised by Excel management for how structured it was: Quite literally, from 3:15 PM to 6 PM, every minute of every day was planned out, and even “free time” was very controlled.

Yet, on the flipside, even though much of my professional work has been on the “structured” side,” my “heart” has increasingly leaned towards unstructured play. Perhaps, this is reflective of my childhood: Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I had never been part of a sports program, but played sports constantly in an unstructured fashion. I had never really “fit in” at school, but still looked forward to recess as a break from a structured day. Indeed, closer to home, I have been involved in Halifax as a Board Member of an organization called “Adventure Play” (link in references) which explicitly promotes unstructured, risky play and a move away from the over-scheduling which I excelled in when I worked professionally with the school board or many other recreation programs.

So, where do I sit in the end on the structured versus unstructured debate? Probably somewhere in the middle, although I am honestly still figuring it out. This article however really got me thinking, and I will next look at what I liked and did not like about some of the approaches from Playworks it describes, culminating in a re-evaluation of where I might fit in the spectrum.

Where I Agreed with the Playworks Approach

            On a general note, I do think the Playworks approach has a lot going for it. Indeed, I have been a recess/ lunch monitor in the past, and can share the frustration expressed in the Deruy article that many adults monitoring recesses tend to be disengaged and sitting on the sidelines, as opposed to taking an active role playing with kids or creating positive experiences (2017). Indeed, in my professional life, I have also been a High Five trainer (a quality standard used for recreation in many Canadian institutions), where I actively teach guidelines about how adults should guide play. Here, this can also be related to the reading in class from Barcelona and Young, which emphasizes the need for training of sport coaches (2010). Similarly, “staff training for recess” is also cited as a key recommendation in the Minnesota Department of Education’s article on the matter (Alholm et al., 2013; also see the guidelines recommend by SHAPE America, 2017). As such, I would agree that some level of staff training should be required for those monitoring recess times.

As well, another area of agreement is the focus on peer to peer learning that is described in the article. Indeed, while at Excel, one of my proudest achievements was to implement a version of the Canadian-wide “Playground Active Leaders” or PALS program, where older elementary school students were taught skills to allow them to lead activities for younger kids as volunteers (See the Leisure Information Network, 2017 for a summary of this program).  Indeed, research shows that such youth leadership opportunities has a huge effect in boosting self-esteem and community engagement in youth, and also creates greater enjoyment for the children being led (Jones et. al, 2009).

As a third point of agreement, I also appreciated the emphasis that the article made on children who are sometimes “left behind” (Deruy, 2016). Indeed, the bullying organization, Prevnet, cites research that indicates bullying is “more prevalent in the playground” than the classroom, with the lack of supervision during playground time one reason for this (Craig et al., 2007). To this regard, the Playworks approach seems to have had success, with kids more willing to play.

Some Points of Disagreement

            Perhaps my biggest “beef” with the Playworks approach was its focus on conflict, or the lack thereof, as a key measure for how play should be judged. Indeed, when at Excel, I recall debating with my management that the number of “Incident” or “Accident” reports should not be seen as a measure of how well a program is doing: Here, I argued that conflict is an inevitable part of play and should not require frequent mediation by adults, and also that injuries are naturally going to occur in active play and should not be something to fear. For instance, in promoting unstructured play, Josephine Connolly-Shoonen of the Heart Links Project argues that children must have opportunities to “cooperate, share and solve problems” themselves and to work out “conflicts of everyday life” (2017). Similarly, in “An Investigation of Unstructured Play in Nature and its Effect on Children’s Self-Efficacy,” Starling (2011) argues that resolving conflict is a part of children’s self-efficacy and is something to promote. As well, Karen Stephens argues that “some bickering and conflict in childhood helps kids discover positive ways of resolving disagreements” (2007, p. 1). To this end, the Playworks approach of giving “tools” for children to resolve conflicts is supported by me, but having adults actively “mediating” conflicts (except in case of extreme circumstances) is something I would discourage: Children need space to disagree (Deruy, 2016). As such, measuring the success of programs by the amount of conflict prevented is not recommended.

Another area of disagreement is whether recess is the place to have an initiative like Playworks, or whether this would be incorporated better at other parts of the day: In other words, I worry about sacrificing more unstructured, free time during recess with the Playworks approach, and would prefer if the kind of semi-structured play they recommend was instead taught at in the school day. Indeed, I reflect on my own experiences as a child where I needed that time to “unwind” and worry that creating more structure into recess will not be as effective, even if the teachings given to kids from the Playworks approach is very valuable. Indeed, after much consideration of different sides of the issue, Hyndman suggests that one should “explore school playground interventions that promote ‘unstructured’ active play during school breaks” (Hyndman, p. 65). As an example of unstructured interventions, research has also shown that “greening” or adding more natural elements in schools can have an effect on both promoting unstructured play but also achieving some of the same goals that Playworks espouses to, such as reducing conflict, social inclusion of others and increased physical activity (NSW Government, 2015). Similarly, playing with loose parts has also been shown to have similarly positive effects while promoting unstructured play (Maxwell et al., 2008).

Where I End Up

            After all this, where would I end up in the structured versus unstructured spectrum? Truthfully, I am still uncertain, although think the Playworks approach is one that deserves more research, with more scientifically validated evaluations also recommended to see its effectiveness (related to one of my initial questions). In the end, I believe a balance does need to be struck in between structure and unstructured play: For instance, I think it does greatly benefit to teach kids different strategies around inclusion in games and conflict resolution. However, I do worry that teaching kids what games to play can limit creativity, and think an approach where teachers only step in during conflict emergencies is a better approach than one where they step in during other times. As well, I see value in the training the program provides, but wonder whether this should this done during recess? From my perspective, I feel such teaching should happen during the school day, where recess I believe should remain a place for kids to have that “free play time.” Your thoughts?




Alholm, Lisa et al. (2013) Recess Moves: A Tooolkit for Quality Recess!. Minnesota Department of Education. Retrieved from:

Brendon, H. (January 02, 2015). Where to Next for School Playground Interventions to Encourage Active Play? An Exploration of Structured and Unstructured School Playground Strategies. Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention, 8 1), p. 56-67.

Maxwell, Lorraine E., Mari R. Mitchell, and Gary W. Evans (2008). Effects of Play Equipment and Loose Parts on Preschool Children’s Outdoor Play Behavior: An Observational Study and Design Intervention. Children, Youth and Environments 18 (2), p. 36-63. Retrieved from:

Connolly-Schoonen, Josephine (2017). Thinking Outside the Sandbox: the Importance of Unstructured Play in Children. The Heart Links Project. Retrieved from:

Craig, W.M., Pepler, D.J., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of Bullying in the Playground and in the Classroom. School Psychology International, 21(1), 22-36.

Maxwell, Lorraine E., Mari R. Mitchell, and Gary W. Evans (2008). Effects of Play Equipment and Loose Parts on Preschool Children’s Outdoor Play Behavior: An Observational Study and Design Intervention. Children, Youth and Environments 18 (2), p. 36-63. Retrieved from:

NSW Government Family & Community Services (2015). Play and Leisure Practice Guide for Occupational Therapists who Support People with Disability. Retrieved from:

Playground Activity Leaders in Schools (P.A.L.S.) (2017). Leisure Information Network. Retrieved From:

Society of Health and Physical Educators (2017). Strategies for Recess in Schools. Retrieved from:

Starling, Paul E. (2011) An Investigation of Unstructured Play in Nature and its Effect on Children’s Self-Efficacy. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons. Retrieved from:

Stephens, Karen (2007). Teaching Children to Resolve Conflict Respectfully. Parenting Exchange. Retrieved from:

The Community of Youth Workers Union (2006). The Benefits of Play and Playwork. Retrieved from:

What We Do (2017). Playworks. Retrieved from:

Disclosure: Internal sources are not cited here. Also, in full disclosure, time limited my ability to read all of the above in as much detail as might be preferred, with most articles skimmed. However, some of the articles were ones familiar to me in past research on play, and every effort was made to ensure my representation of any article was as accurate as possible. Also, some organizations/ former employers had been referred to in passing during the article, and links are here: Adventure Play, Excel and High FIVE.

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