Just the Right Amount of Structure

Outcome: From this lesson, you will develop a better understanding of how to have just the right amount of structure when teaching children or running a camp program. Tips on how to create and stick to a schedule, transition activities smoothly, and allow the children to engage in unstructured play are all included in this lesson.

Lesson Length : 25 minutes


Start by reading the lesson plan all the way through, then take some time to answer the pause and reflect questions.

Providing Just the Right Amount of Structure

One of the most beautiful parts about teaching at the PlayGarden is observing the children play when they are deep in their own flow. In these times, the children are often playing independently or clustered in pairs, or small groups. They are directing their own play, have found roles for themselves and each other and are deeply immersed in what they are doing. 

As a teacher, it can feel like you hit the sweet spot in your day. You feel proud of your teaching and proud of the experiences your students are having.

So how do you get to that sweet point? 

Everyone wants to get to that point in their teaching day where things feel a bit smoother and where the children have settled in and are playing well together. To get to this point however, there are a couple things teachers need to balance: 

  1. Have a balance between structured and unstructured play time.
  2. Have strategies at hand to help children transition between activities. 
  3. Reserve time to observe each individual child and assess what they may need in a given moment.  
  4. Balance the needs of the whole group. 

Finding the Balance Between Structured and Unstructured Play

In a preschool program, finding a good balance between structured and unstructured play time is key. At the PlayGarden, less than half our day is spent in structured play activities such as circle time, snack or lunch. The other slightly more than half is spent allowing the kids to engage in unstructured, child-directed free play. Preschoolers need both.

Activity Part I: Structured Play

Benefits of structured play:

Structure gives children a sense of order. It can help teach them how to follow routine and overall can help kids feel secure. Clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham explains, “A predictable routine allows children to feel safe and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives.” 

At the PlayGarden we add structure to our day by having circle times, snack and lunch at the same time every day following a similar routine. However, the teachers also provide structure for each individual child throughout the day providing kids with clear options of what projects they could choose from, inviting them into various activities, and using teaching tools such as picture schedules and timers, to help the kids feel more at ease.

Take a look at our daily preschool schedule.

The parts in blue are structured times we come together as a full class while the parts in black are unstructured time where there is a mix of child-directed and adult-directed play opportunities. Notice how our structured group time is broken up by unstructured free play time. Do you notice the difference in time lengths for each of these different parts to our day? For example, circle time (a structured activity)  is usually about 30 minutes while free play (unstructured activity) before lunch is an hour and a half. 

Why Use Visual Schedules With Preschoolers?

A picture schedule is a symbol or picture representation of a series of activities. A picture schedule is a great teaching tool to use with your whole class or with individual children. 

Visual schedules can help… 

  • Children with communication disabilities communicate what activities they do or don’t want to do by pointing or gesturing to certain visuals. 
  • Children with Autism, ADHD or behavioral disabilities can benefit from a little added structure and direction in their day. 
  • Can be used to help children who are toilet training stay on a consistent schedule. 
  • For children that need a little extra help transitioning from one activity to the next.
  • For children who need help to stay engaged in an activity for longer periods of time. 
  • Can help reduce anxiety. For example, for children that are anxious about when their parents will come back, a visual schedule is a tool that can help them see the sequence of the day and countdown until their parents come back. 
  • Can be used to review what happened that day for kids who cannot tell their parents what they did. 

How to make a picture schedule 

Picture schedules can take many forms. Some of our favorites include a laminated sheet that can be drawn on with dry erase markers or each part of the schedule can be removable using sticky back velcro. An adjustable schedule such as one with sticky back velcro can help the child understand how they are progressing through the day.

How a Picture Schedule Helps Sophie
Let’s take a look at an example picture schedule for a child named Sophie. Sophie is non-verbal and has a hard time joining social activities on her own. She finds comfort in the garden and especially likes to pick flowers and blueberries. Providing Sophie with a picture schedule can make a significant difference in her day. With it she can better communicate with her teachers and peers. For Sophie, having a schedule that shows her a variety of options is key for her having a variety of experiences. Sophie likes to play with bubbles but because she has a hard time knowing how to join a group of other children, she will often avoid the bubbles and go back to the activity that she knows well, picking blueberries. With the help of a teacher and a picture schedule, the possibility of bubbles becomes more readily available to her.

Making a Picture Schedule on the Fly 

If you are short on time, have a child whose interest changes quickly, or a daily schedule that changes frequently you can make a schedule on the fly and write out a daily schedule with the child themselves. This is a great option for teachers because it is quick, easy and can be adjusted on a daily basis. 

How a Picture Schedule Helps Park

These two picture schedules were made on the fly with Park when he first arrived at school.  Including Park in writing his schedule gives him more autonomy over his day. Park gets to decide what he wants to do during the day, such as feed the bunnies. The teacher also gets to add in some areas that they want Park to practice, “play with friends.”  Having Park participate in making his own schedule makes a huge difference in his willingness to follow the schedule. We revisit the schedules regularly throughout the day. By the end of the day, it is way more than a schedule. It is a piece of art that he is proud of. A detailed list of all his accomplishments. At the end of the day, Park would enthusiastically ask if he could show his list to his Papa.

What to do when the day starts to go awry 

Finding the sweet spot in teaching where the ALL students are happily engaged in their play takes scanning and a high level of awareness. As hard as it is, as a teacher it is important every fifteen minutes or so to take a pause and scan over the whole classroom.   Take note of what each child is doing. You may notice that some of your students are engaged in their play and doing just fine. However, you may also look up and see that one child may be wandering, seeming a bit lost or off on their own.  You may realize they have been that way for a while. You may notice that the students are starting to fight with one another or make a bigger than normal mess of the materials. You may even look up and realize that many of the students feel a bit lost. As a teacher, you probably feel lost at that moment too.  That’s where the pausing comes in. 

You can assess individual children or the class as a whole and make the decision about what it is that would help the class get back to that sweet spot. Maybe there has been too much unstructured time and the students are craving some direction.  This is a time to start a group game or bring out an art experience. If you notice that it is just an individual child seeming a bit lost, this is the time when you can help that child by giving some amount of structure or direction. 

Ask yourself, 

  • What is their behavior telling me they may be needing or wanting? 
  • What is it that they would enjoy? 
  • Is there another student in the class I can pair them up with? Or do they need some solo time?
  • What could help them feel more connected- either to the garden, the animals, the teachers or their peers?

Transition Strategies

Anyone who works with children knows that children move through the world at the pace that works for them and their bodies. Picture a group of kids and you can easily picture the child that moves like a hummingbird through their day, zipping from thing to thing with zeal. It is just as easy to picture the child that moves more like a sloth, slowly, thoughtfully moving from one place to the next. Children’s natural pace is not something teachers can change. The children are who they are.

In an inclusive environment the teachers work with individual children to help them move through their day at a pace that works for them while still balancing the needs of the whole class. This child-centered approach is gentle. It requires  teachers to be flexible, patient and open to using a variety of methods to help each child.  However, this balancing can become even harder when children have a hard time transitioning from one activity to the next or one place to the next.  Transitioning can be particularly hard for a child when they are being asked to transition from an activity they are very interested in to an activity that they are less interested in. For some children, transitions are the hardest part of the day. 

There are many transition strategies teachers and parents can use to help.

1.Prepare them

Give the children advance warning for how long an activity will last. This can help them know what to expect in a day.

2.Help them know what to expect

Use first, then language: for example, “First we will do a circle, then we will come back to the Playground.”  This works particularly well if you can find a way to bring them back to the activity that they want most. 

3.Try kind commands with fun options instead of questions

In many cases, if you are trying to transition a child to something they are not ready for or are not yet interested in doing, if you ask them “ Do you want to go to the bathroom?” You will likely be met with “No- I don’t want to!”  Try instead, a command with some clear options. Such as “It’s bathroom time! Do you want to use the butterfly or birdie bathroom?” This gives them the options of which bathroom to focus on rather than the thought of being around going to the bathroom at all or not. 


4.Make the transition fun

The more fun you can make a transition the more likely kids will be able to make the transition with ease. Use the child’s interests and your imagination to guide you in what kind of game you choose.  If they like trains, make it a railroad from where you are to where you want the children to go. If they like animals, pretend to be those animals. Some games we like include Red, Light Green Light, Follow the Leader (with different kids being the leader), and Simon Says.

5.Try using puppets

Puppets are a fun way to help young children transition. The novelty of a different character asking them to do something rather than their teacher or parent can help break pre-existing power dynamics that manifest around common transitions. 

6.Consider alternate kinds of movement

Sometimes a simple change to how the child is being asked to move or switch from activities from one place to the next can help. At the PlayGarden we offer wagon rides, wheelchair rides,  piggy back rides, airplane rides, skipping, running, forwards, backwards or sideways, racing, or making something an obstacle course are acceptable ways to move from place to place or activity to activity.

7.Use a transition object

With some children, having their special stuffed animal, toy, blanket or even a food with them can smooth transitions. This is especially true in the case of a child transitioning from one location to another such as from home to school or from home to preschool. If a child is having a hard time leaving school, think of items they can bring back and forth from school to home.

8.Use a visual schedule

A visual schedule can be useful because the child can look at the picture and know what activity is next. 

9.Use a timer or a visual countdown system

Have the kids set the timers and remind them of what it means when the timer goes off before it goes off.

10.Use transition songs

Transition songs are a great way to help kids move from one activity to the next. Songs are light-hearted and can shake up the energy. They give kids a cue for what is next and are a great way to switch up communication channels, which can be especially helpful if a child responds less to verbal instructions. 

11. Choose transition activities

These would be things that could be done in between two other things such as skipping over to the car or counting to ten before moving on to the next thing.

12. Allow for extra time

If you’re rushing, your child will pick up on your energy. This can make them feel even more agitated or anxious. Giving yourself extra time  can help keep everyone calmer and have more time to adjust to the change.

13. Use social stories

For children who have a particularly hard time with transitions, preparing them with relevant social stories can be helpful.

14. Maintain consistency

As much as possible, try to stick with the schedule and routines that you have laid out. This will make the schedule as consistent as possible which will help minimize the feeling of unfamiliarity that can sometimes come with transitions. 

Activity Part II: Unstructured Play

Benefits of unstructured play:

Unstructured time, on the other hand, is also very important for a child’s development. In unstructured play, kids ignite their creativity and imaginations. They are able to explore their surroundings, relax, dream, think, and move at the pace that is right for them at that moment.

Child-Directed Play with Children with Disabilities 

There is a common misconception that children with disabilities have to learn and play differently than their peers. This makes it harder to find opportunities for child-directed free play time.

Adults may be around to support them socially, physically or behaviorally. Though this support often comes from a good place from parents and educators alike, there are times when adult intervention or support can limit a child’s autonomy and independence. 

If it is done all the time the child is not provided the necessary opportunities to learn about independence, autonomy and their identity as an individual.

At the playgarden, we value and encourage free play. Allowing the children to create their own ideas and to explore the materials around them independently stimulates curiosity. Some aspects of what a child might consider as play, such as picking flowers, might not seem beneficial at first. When you run into thoughts like this, stop and ask yourself some questions, “what attracted the child to this area?” or “Is the child doing anything dangerous or harming anyone/thing?” before you step into transition activities. When giving children opportunity for unstructured play, make sure you allot enough time for the child to truly explore the environment around them. The amount of unstructured playtime should be much longer when compared to structured playtime. Children who are given the freedom to create their own path while playing will gain a better understanding of how the environment around them functions, it will give them a greater appreciation for nature, and will allow them to develop a strong sense of self.

A few examples of the limitless possibilities of free play include: 

  • Any kind of imaginative play, dramatic play, risky play or rough and tumble play 
  • Riding bikes, scooters, obstacle courses or playing group games 
  • Making art of all kinds (see Art Everyday) 
  • Reading books and singing songs (see book and song list) 
  • Playing in the mud pit (see muddy play), garden, playground, basketball court
  • Helping cook snack and lunch  (see Making Mealtime Meaningful) 
  • Playing with blocks, puzzles, legos, bubbles, cars and trucks 

At the PlayGarden the students receive hours of unstructured child-directed outdoor free play  in the sun, rain, ice and snow. They become gardeners themselves planting seeds, watering seedlings, harvesting, tasting and picking.  Through their play they  also become caretakers and stewards.  They learn how to take care of our animals along with the wild animals we encounter on a daily basis. The students grow a deep appreciation for  the garden and each other and in their time engaged in outdoor free play, they are developing rich, and irreplaceable connections to the world around them. 

Excerpt from The WildZones Toolkit

by David Hawkins and Karen Payne

These guidelines can be the basis for training that encourage adults to explore ways of being with children that allow them to discover and engage in free play. They are designed to help adults re-learn the joy of unstructured play and feel comfortable with a child-led agenda, with a focus on how to foster rather than regulate play – and how to let kids find their own way, in their own time.

Some of these suggestions will not come easily to adults because we are usually expected to instruct young people in the right way to do things and to regulate all aspects of children’s lives. People will find different aspects of these guidelines come naturally or feel challenging – the diversity of adults in your play space can support each other in exploring new ways of being with children.

Don’t unwrap the child’s presents for them

  • Give children time and space to explore what’s there without trying to engage them in something that you think they would enjoy.
  • Kids are so used to being told what to do and the right way to do it, that it may take some time (and perhaps some frustration) for some kids to find their intrinsic motivation and find out how they want to direct their own activities.
  • Tolerate children’s uncertainty or boredom-don’t try to solve it for them. 

Don’t show them how to play with their presents

  • Let kids discover for themselves how to do things even if it takes them longer or they don’t do it in the most efficient manner.

No Gold stars are needed

  • Interact with kids in a way that expresses interest in what they want to tell you about what they are doing, but avoid praising or passing judgement. Even positive judgement takes it out of the realm of play and into the realm of pleasing others, rather than doing something for the intrinsic pleasure of it.
  • Find alternatives to standard phrases for praising, such as ‘Good Job!’ or ‘Well done!’ For example: ‘That looks like fun’ or ‘What did you enjoy about making that?’ Or anything that authentically expresses your interest in the child’s project rather than your judgement of it.

Be Playful Yourself

  • Enter into the joy of unstructured play. Engage in your own play or activity but be aware of what is happening with kids and be ready to leave what you are doing to respond to what is happening with the children.
  • This concept is called “parallel play” – it is a proven method of encouraging children to play in creative ways. You can dig a hole or skip stones or daub mud on your arm or stack stones or build something…anything…as long as it is truly interesting or fun for YOU – not just something you think would be fun for a kid.

Be interested, but respect the inner life of the child at play

  • It is not always possible or useful to put important experiences into words. Falling in love, grief from the loss of a loved one, relating to nature- these are private experiences and it may not be appropriate to explain them to someone else. Avoid questioning children in order to satisfy your curiosity about what this experience means to them. 

Refrain from the” teachable moment”

  •  Allow the child’s own meanings or interpretations to take priority over the “teachable moment”-whether it is about science, math, ecology or other forms of knowledge.
  • Be curious, share memories, be excited or amused or touched, but hold back from suggestions, instructions, advice or commentary.

Explore ways to feel comfortable with a child led agenda

  • Think about times when you have solved a problem or met a challenge without someone else giving advice or instructions. Use these memories as motivation for allowing children to be self directed in their play and projects.

Allow children to find a way through their own conflicts and challenges.

  • Play is an excellent context for learning about how to manage conflicts without adult arbitration.
  • Other children may step forward to improve a situation
  • As in all parts of life, please do interrupt bullying, racism, cruelty, or violence.

 Trust (This above All)

  • Children’s brains and emotions are designed to learn much of what they need to know by playing. Most studies on the value of free play emphasize its crucial value in developing social skills and all forms of cognitive and emotional development.
  • Unless someone is hurting themselves or hurting others, or taking a risk that may truly lead to injury, try not to interfere. Self directed play is a key to lifelong learning and evaluating risk is an important survival strategy.

Read the full Wildzones How to Create and Enjoy them A Toolkit by David Hawkins and Karen Payne.

Pause and Reflect

  1. After reading the benefits about the balance of structured and unstructured play, how can you adjust your programs schedule to allow a balance of both? 
  2. What stood out the most to you from the WildZone Toolkit excerpt? 
  3. Is there anything you have learned about transitions that you might consider implementing into your own methods?