How we do Unstructured play time in summer. Your budget will thank you!

Unstructured playtime...   What does that even mean?    It means that I’m not in charge of entertaining my children.    That’s not harsh or heartless. And I’m not a lazy mom either. I’m just recognizing my long-term goal for raising kids. I’m NOT raising kids. I’m raising adults.

Unstructured playtime...

What does that even mean?


It means that I’m not in charge of entertaining my children.

That’s not harsh or heartless. And I’m not a lazy mom either. I’m just recognizing my long-term goal for raising kids.


I’m NOT raising kids. I’m raising adults.

Adults need to learn to be self-starters and to pull themselves up by their proverbial boot-straps and create on their own.

The absolutely best place to start that process is during the summer months.

Think about it:  kids don’t have schools and teachers managing their schedule for them, telling them when to sit, when to stand, when to play, and when to work.

As parents we need to be careful to NOT fill their afternoon and evenings with extracurricular events.


I’m not anti-school, anti-teacher, anti-sport, etc.

I am, however, pro-adulting.

I’m advocating we use these awesome summer months to teach our kids some independence. Using unstructured play does that beautifully.

During those 2-3 months in the summer parents have a unique opportunity to accelerate our kids maturity, resilience, and proactiveness. I say we use it!


How does this whole thing work?

According to the study I cited in The Easy, No-Stress, Low-Cost Summer Survival Plan For MOMS  (Read the study here), unstructured play time is best for developing kids who are great self-starters and think at higher problem-solving levels. Ya know… the kind of kids who became great adults and changed the world.  Admit it, you want one of those as your progeny!!


From the research: “Executive Functions develop dramatically during childhood  and support a number of higher-level cognitive processes, including planning and decision-making, maintenance and manipulation of information in memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and actions, and flexible shifting from one task to another.”

And this great article in The Atlantic.


What about the budget?

What does any of this have to do with financial savviness or getting further faster with your finances?!

Um, for moms…. EVERYTHING!!

As moms, we are super gung-ho about giving our children every healthy opportunity we can for optimal growth and development! Products or programs are sold to us on the premise that they will ensure our children become the next Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, or President of the United States.

It’s actually kind of sad to me how most of these programs focus on outcomes that have little to do with our children’s unique capabilities.

But, because of FOMO (fear of missing out) we enroll them in a cornucopia of early childhood development curricula, play “special” music and videos, limit their technology time, and provide scads of extracurricular opportunities.


And all of this comes with a price-tag.  Frequently, a very HEFTY price tag.

(*cough cough* competitive sports teams and dance competitions to name a few…)


Now before you think I'm anti-expensive-activities-for-kids, know that all these things are GOOD. And they can definitely benefit our children.

What the research is saying is that an over-abundance of good things can actually hinder your children’s development. And your bank account, too.

I’m in your corner, wanting your children to grow up healthy, wealthy, and wise; just like that old proverb says.

And according to the research, that doesn’t have to compromise our family’s financial big-picture. In fact, we can do it in balance with our family’s financial goals.

I want my kids to learn to break things (that I don’t care about), in the name of learning and discovery.

I want them to gain confidence in their ability to recover from failure. To be Resilient. So that when life kicks them in the seat of the pants (which it will), they can hustle and get in a great position to show life who’s boss.

Sure, there are activities and programs that will do that for them, but according to the research the best results come from learning that is not designed by adults. It’s outside of the “safe-zone” of supervised play.


What does unstructured playtime look like for our family this summer?

I have two old computers I’m going to let my kids pull apart and destroy.

We have a garden plot where they can learn to grow vegetables (or kill all the plants if they want. Though I will be really sad about the tomatoes I will miss out on…).

They have already created (on paper and then in reality) two different obstacle courses from the junk in our garage. The only guidelines I gave them were to include a balance element and a water element, whatever that looked like.

We headed to a park and I watched them play frisbee, soccer, hide-and-seek, and tag. All from items they scrounged from the back of the car.

One of my kids’ favorites is night games with the neighborhood kids using glow sticks and whatever game they have in mind. Seriously, any game becomes epic by adding nighttime, lighting bugs, stars, and glow sticks.

And if you don’t have lightning bugs, that’s Ok. They’ll still have the time of their lives. :)


Other ideas I’ve encouraged my kids to create:

Build forts inside and outside the house.

Build a string course that is woven through the house using kitchen string.

And This article has some wonderful, back-to-nature ideas for self-directed playtime.

My favorites:

  • Catching bugs with a mason jar and observing them with a magnifying glass.
  • Laying out and watching the stars.
  • Building a fire pit for nighttime fire-side fun.
  • Painting the barn (or other building) with a bucket of water.


The key is to let them direct the what and how.

I give them equipment and a list of ideas to stir the creative pot in their heads, and then let them do what they will (within reason).


Their limits are based on safety:

  • No fire.
  • No power tools without supervision.
  • No cooking in the kitchen without recipe approval.


And what are the results?

My 4 year old can play on his own at my feet while I work. My 11 year old and 13 year old create activities that neighborhood kids flock to my house to participate in.

In all honesty, my 6 year old and 9 year old still struggle with the technology vacuum when faced with boredom. That’s a work in progress, but I’m confident we’ll grow them into independent souls over time.

In the meantime, I have a television with a removable plug. High-five and fist-bump! ;)


The best part? It’s all F.R.E.E.

With a little planning we’ve just created a summer full of memorable and brain-boosting fun, before investing a dime in camps, lessons, or programs.

There’s room for both, absolutely. But don’t forget to include a larger amount of free play into your kids’ summer. They’ll be better equipped for life in the long-run and your budget will thank you for it!


How about your family?

What do your kids do with their free-time?
What does your list of unstructured play look like?
Post it below or in our free Facebook group.


Read more: The Easy, No-Stress, Low-Cost Summer Survival Plan For MOMS