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Unstructured free play lets children solve their own interpersonal problems in ways teachers not normally orchestrate

Why unstructured free play is a key remedy to bullying

Unstructured free play lets children solve their own interpersonal problems in ways teachers don't normally orchestrate

October was National Bullying Prevention Month, and in my decade of teaching in high-poverty public elementary schools, I’ve seen strategy after strategy and initiative after initiative implemented to decrease bullying.

While every case is unique, having a general understanding of why a student chooses to bully can be helpful.

Kids usually bully for one of the following reasons: they are frustrated with life’s circumstances and don’t have the emotional tools to cope, they don’t have many friends and are lonely, they have issues with emotional regulation, or they feel powerless to control their life for any number of reasons.

Our school’s approach to bullying is simple, yet effective: Unstructured free play. Seriously? Yes. Stay with me.  

In the years since my school began incorporating more and more unstructured free play into our school day (before school by opening up our playground, during school by adding an additional recess, and after school by adding a Play Club), our students are happier, kinder, have fewer behavior problems, have made more friends, feel more in control of their day and their life in general, and in some cases have dramatically changed course from bullying behaviors and frequent office referrals to no bullying behaviors and no office referrals.

When we understand the root causes of bullying behavior, we can see why unstructured free play is helping our students so dramatically.

Unstructured free play addresses–head-on–making friends, learning empathy, learning emotional regulation, learning interpersonal skills, and it greatly empowers students by helping them find a healthy place in their school community–all while teaching them life’s most important skills like creativity, innovation, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-direction, perseverance, and social skills.

It turns out the skills our students need most can’t be learned through direct instruction from a teacher, but instead are acquired through real life experiences with their peers. When my school stopped treating students just as empty brains to fill with knowledge but instead holistic people with a huge social-emotional component to nurture, adding more time with their peers in free play was a no-brainer. So what have we seen, and how does this help fight bullying? 

Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I had a student who walked around with a chip on his shoulder. He never smiled, never laughed, and always seemed angry. He was cruel to other kids, had frequent behavior issues in class, and in the course of one week had three office referrals from three different teachers for his extreme behaviors. Other kids would label him a bully, but where they saw a bully, we as teachers saw a hurting and lonely child in need of friends. He was the kind of student who was always disciplined by losing recess time, so I eventually added it up and realized he was getting only about 30 minutes of playtime in an entire week on average.

Realizing his lack of play and knowing play’s immense benefits, I arranged a conference with his parent and asked if I could have him join my Play Club – a one-hour afterschool club dedicated to unstructured free play. His parent agreed to let him join, and before I knew it, his first day at Play Club had arrived. I was a little nervous that his behavior issues would continue, and he would wreak havoc on my other Play Club students, but I knew play could help him, so I was committed to the process. For the first half hour of Play Club he just walked around by himself. Eventually a student kicked a ball to him and he kicked it back. After a few more kicks, he eventually started running around and playing with the other kids. By the end of that first day of Play Club he was smiling, laughing, and playing in a healthy way—and with other kids! It was shocking to see the transformation in him after just one hour of complete unstructured free play. The teacher supervising Play Club with me had tears in her eyes at the dramatic change she was witnessing.

Those friendships he forged in Play Club that week and in the weeks that followed helped him begin to have healthy, positive relationships and find a place in our school community. This carried over into the classroom, where he never received another office referral again all the way through his years at our school–all from having some positive play experiences that addressed the core issues of his bullying behaviors like loneliness, anger, and not feeling like he fit in.  

Free play not only helps the student who is bullying, but it helps those on the receiving end of the behavior. Students who participate in large amounts of unstructured free play are far better at coping with other students who are aggressive, hurtful, and irritating. As children encounter more and more real-life experiences with other children, they learn how to handle others in profound ways as their interpersonal skills are acquired and sharpened.  

One autumn day in my afterschool Play Club, a small group of students gathered fallen leaves into a giant pile to jump into. For many it was their first time ever attempting this time-honored fun activity. After a couple of students showed the others how to jump in, a student not a part of the small group sat down directly in the middle of the small group’s pile in defiance of the others who were having fun trying to get an angry reaction out of them.

In a normal situation, a teacher would step in, address the student, and force him to move off the pile…but this was Play Club, and the teachers don’t interfere so as to give the children a chance to learn those crucial soft skills discussed earlier. At first the kids asked him politely to move. After a minute though it turned into shouts of, “Move out of the way! We’re trying to jump in!” Then the kids got flustered and looked to each other for answers while the boy defiantly looked on still sitting on the pile with his arms crossed.

Eventually one girl shouted to the others, “Just jump around him! The pile is big enough after all.” They did. The boy trying to ruin the fun lost interest eventually and walked away realizing being mean and ruining everyone’s fun wasn’t rewarding and the other kids having learned the lesson of how to deal with someone who is trying to get under your skin. It was a beautiful moment encapsulating how unstructured free play allows children to solve their own interpersonal problems in ways teachers never could have orchestrated themselves.  

Play Clubs are easy to run, extremely effective, take no prep work, and cost no money. It’s as easy as showing up and telling kids to go play while merely supervising in case of emergencies. I recommend referencing these free Play Club resources from Let Grow to get started. With their resources, sign up forms, and tools, starting a Play Club truly is as easy as could be in helping transform your school into a bully-free school naturally and effectively.  

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