Out-of-school clubs versus unstructured play — which is best?

Our kids spend all day in a classroom, and when the school bell rings it’s likely that they want to let off some steam and do something that they enjoy. As a parent, it can be difficult to make the decision whether this should be structured activity in the form of a supervised class or unstructured play where they can spend time gaming or outdoors with friends. Infinite Playgrounds, designers and creators of canopies for schools, tell us more:

Lack of physical activity amongst children
Research has found that one in five children don’t play outdoors at all but this can be due to many factors. In fact, one shocking statistic from 2016 revealed that three-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates which is rather shocking to hear! In a typical day, kids aged eight to 15 spend just 68 minutes of their time taking part in an outdoor activity, sports-related activity or travelling on foot or by bike. Instead, it’s believed that children are using their spare time to play on their smartphones, tablets and gaming devices. We are clearly becoming a nation of tablets / mobile phones and I am struggling to see that change.

There aren’t enough schooling hours in the day to make a change to child activity levels either. It’s recommended that children have 1 hour of physical activity per day which doesn’t actually seem a lot in a long day. Yet, a P.E class often occurs only once a week and break times aren’t long enough for children to get their heart racing for a significant amount of time. There is usually a lot to cram in for each school day.
It’s possible that the lack of outdoor and physical activity that is being experienced is having negative health implications to the growing generation in the long run. One fifth of children are classed as overweight or obese when they begin school, and this increases to one third by the time they leave primary school.

Structured clubs
Out-of-school clubs have been found to increase physical activity and wellbeing levels amongst children. They are not free so more often than not parents have to pay for this.
Research from the University of Bristol was conducted on the subject, whereby 1,223 state-funded pupils aged eight to nine made up the sample. It was discovered that children who went to after-school clubs that involved exercise became 67% more likely to meet the recommendation for the hour of physical activity per day. Children who attended these types of out-of-school clubs got around 7.5 minutes more activity each day that children who didn’t attend.
Placing your child in an after-school club can often have cost implications too. The average cost per hour session of an after-school activity was found to be £21.79 in London and around £16 in the rest of the UK. Even if a child was attending three of these after-school clubs per week, the costs would certainly add up.
School work and commitments can get in the way of club attendance too. Primary school children were found to attend on average 3.2 after-school activities each week that were not school organised and funded by parents. However, this decreased to an average 1.7 amongst secondary school children as their homework levels increased and they preferred to spend more time with friends and online.
After-school clubs can have positive effects on school work too. In children who came from low-income backgrounds, those who attended after-school clubs one day per week had on average 1.7 point higher actual Key Stage 2 score than predicted. These children also developed better social, behavioral and emotional skills than those who did not attend.

Unstructured play
Of course, unstructured play is good for children too and I am a huge fan of this for my toddler. They need to indulge in this sort of play to improve their overall behaviour and learn how to work collaboratively and share with others without direction from an adult.
Referring to the study from the University of Bristol, playing in the neighbourhood or in the garden was found to be associated with similar increases in activity as attending an after-school club. This could be seen as a more reasonable solution however as mentioned, it can be difficult to encourage children to get outside and play as they get older.
When children play without supervision outdoors, they become more in touch with their senses. This can help build stronger cognitive abilities and improve their social skills through unsupervised interaction with children their own age.

As we can see, both structured clubs and unstructured play have their own benefits for children what ever the age. We need to keep in mind that kids need to be increasing their physical activity levels as this reaps a range of benefits. It does depend on the individual child whether they prefer (and are more likely to) do this without an encouraging adult or on their own. The best way to help a child’s development could be to strike the right balance between clubs and unstructured play.


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