John Tauer Ph.D.

Goal Posts


WOSPs, Unstructured Play, and Intrinsic Motivation

Why Children Need a Balance of Structured and Unstructured Play

Posted Sep 19, 2015

In the previous edition of Goal Posts, I wrote about the absence of informal, unstructured play in today’s culture. There is certainly a place for organized sports in society, as coaches, camps, and teams provide valuable lessons about discipline, loyalty, teamwork, and adherence to group rules and norms. Unstructured play may teach other lessons, such as conflict negotiation, creativity, and the value of autonomy and independence. My hope is that there can be a balance, where children participate in both structured (e.g., teams and camps) and unstructured (e.g., pickup games at the park or rec center) play, learning valuable lessons from each situation. So why has unstructured play gone away?

One reason lies in the dichotomy of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, the desire to take part in an activity for its own sake, is typically marked by feelings of autonomy, pleasure, and enjoyment. One of the simplest ways to destroy intrinsic motivation is to control people’s behavior in areas that they already enjoy. For example, rewarding children for reading books when they already enjoy reading creates the risk that children will come to see their reading as a means to the end of receiving a reward as opposed to reading because it is enjoyable.

Similarly, when too many athletic activities are structured for children, it is natural for them to view those activities as more important than unstructured play. Organized games require reserving fields and hiring referees/umpires. In addition, players are in uniforms, there is a crowd at the game, and there are myriad other factors that highlight the organized nature of the game. There is nothing inherently wrong in any of this, but unfortunately this can lead children to think these events are more important than unstructured play. Combine these factors with the extreme level of overscheduled children in sports and it is no surprise that don’t have a desire to go to the park to play games without referees, uniforms, or a crowd.

Sadly, this results in a loss of intrinsic motivation, in large part due to the extrinsic structures created by adults that are present in most of their activities. Without high levels of intrinsic motivation, children are less likely to practice, persist, and play sports with passion over time. Helping children to learn to spend some of their play time by themselves, without adults, in an unstructured environment will promote a unique set of skills (e.g., conflict negotiation, creativity, and independence) that complement other valuable skills learned in organized sports.

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