Structured Play in the Classroom

I'm all about teaching students to play independently and to play with other children without adult support (or with minimal adult support) in the classroom.
Play is such a great functional skill! Not only is play an important social skill... but think about it this way too:
At home: If children can play independently or with siblings without adult support- it can give families the opportunity to cook, do chores, or practice a little self-care without needing to constantly tend to the children.

In the classroom: If children can play independently or with peers without adult support- it can give teachers the opportunity to work in small groups or 1:1 with other students!

The best strategies I've found to teach students to play without adult support is by giving them a lot of  structure and by explicitly teaching the routines and expectations. If you are just getting started with structured play or just need to freshen it up, check out my favorite tips for structured play.


1) Explicitly teach and reinforce the routine and expectations
It seems like this is always my go-to tip for so many things, but it's SO important! We explicitly teach and model the exact routine and expectations of structured play to students for the first few weeks... and honestly, we review it after long weeks and breaks or whenever students need it! We also spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year reinforcing the desired behaviors during structured play. Trust me, taking the time to do this when you are first implementing structured play with go a long way!

Here's a brief look at our routine/ expectations during structured play: 
  • We have a few structured play times. We have about 15-20 minutes a day that the entire class is playing at the same time. Then we have another 15-20 minutes that small groups of students are doing structured play time. 
  • Students are expected to be at a square (you'll read more about this below).
  • We have 3 round tables with 3 different play activities during structured play time. 4 students can be at each table at a time.
  • Students are able to switch tables as they want. If switching tables excessively becomes a problem, then teachers address it at an individual level (this hasn't been a big issue for us though). Students can only switch to another table if there is a spot open at that table. 
2) Give students concrete areas for play. 
Label and show the exact physical areas where students can play during structured play time. You can put tape on the carpet, use signs, use rugs or have students sit at specific tables. Just make sure that you are showing students the actual boundaries for the play areas... otherwise you might have students roaming and running all over the classroom. 

During structured play, we use 3 round tables for structured play. There are 4 play spots available at each table. The play spots are marked with a vinyl square on the tables. 

We have 3 round tables like this in our classroom. Each table has 4 free time/ play spots at it. 

Square (made with vinyl) to mark sit spot for play. 

3) Switch out the materials often and use reinforcing/ exciting materials
Changing the materials used will ensure that students are engaged and not getting bored during structured play. It's also important to include activities and materials that are reinforcing and interesting to your students! Think about what your students enjoy doing... do they like to build things, do they like to play make believe, do they like cars and trains? If you aren't sure what they like yet, just get some toys/ activities out and see what students interact with! 

Here are a few of our structured play favorites:

  • Cars/ trains and printed roads
  • Dolls with clothes 
  • Animals with different boxes for homes
I include 3 activities each week and I switch out each activity every week (I organize them in a 3 drawer system). I don't spend a ton of time planning/ prepping the materials, but I do ensure that I have at least one activity that each of my students will really enjoy. One drawer goes on each table. 



Grab these pattern block printables are for free from this website!

If you want to see some of our favorite activities for structured play, check out my Amazon list here!