In therapy you may have come across your supervisor explaining that structured play is required in the plan of care for your patient or client. What this simply means is that the activity is driven by you, the therapist, in which it should lead to a specific learning outcome. Unstructured play means that the child can play as they please without any specific requirements involved in reaching any set goal, if no goal at all. Although all play promotes healthy brain functioning and activity, structured play produces intentional learning results.
For example, think of this…you are playing a video game that requires a controller, (think, super smash brothers). But you have absolutely no idea what any of the buttons do. Therefore, you continue playing by smashing into each and every one of those buttons as you get to see your favorite character swoop and fall, and kick, and fall down the playing scene to its impending death in which you see it hover backup and rejuvenate again leading to minimal consequences. Then, if you head over to Twitch (if you’re into that kind of stuff) and you turn on a super smash brothers tournament game, you can tell that the level of playing is strategic with every single movement of their fingers coding in a move on their controller in order to defeat their opponent.
Another example would be when we use the keyboard to type or text a message to our friends. A guilty pleasure that seems effortless, but requires quite a good amount of neural functioning and coordination. We have to encode a message that is intentional for the decoder to receive it’s intentional meaning. Even though we sometimes generate an unintentional secondary meaning taken out of context. That is why I’m giving you a friendly reminder to always read your messages twice before sending). CLICK (oh no!)…But, our brain isn’t just passing over each of these letters without having programmed ourselves to do this in such a way that it is now effortless to produce the results of a message waiting to be received.
Imagine if we could trick developing young brains to learn through play? Hence the term “structured play”. We do this through structured, fun tasks in which the goal of the therapist is for the learner to like the props or activity at hand enough in order to facilitate learning outcomes. Structured play allows us to teach skills that are crucial for cognitive functioning in which the learner practices mastery of them with the hopes of using essential cognitive processing skills to last a lifetime.