We all did unstructured play or deliberate play as kids growing up playing street soccer or street cricket.
The idea of unstructured games is not to improve or get better at a particular skill. Improvement comes with daily practice focusing on a particular skill. Unstructured games are for enjoyment and to develop movement skills, creativity, and problem-solving skills.
Once the child has developed fundamental movement skills and done early specialized sports, parents need to facilitate unstructured games as it has many benefits.
● Develops creativity and problem-solving skills: Children create their own rules in unstructured games like gully cricket. Some of them were "a direct hit to the wall is out, one bounce one hand catch is out, and scoring is only on one side of the wicket and no runs on the other side." Along with all these rules, to restrict the batsmen from scoring runs, the bowler bowls balls on one side where there are no runs which compels the batsmen to find different ways to score runs improving their creativity skills.
Similarly, with street soccer, played in small lanes, the child needs to tackle opponents and score a goal which helps the child develop creative moves.
● Complete ownership: The biggest advantage of unstructured games other than movement skills, creativity, and problem-solving skills is that the child has complete ownership of the experience compared to a structured model where the coach directs. We do not have parents or coaches telling us what to do and what not to do. Children take risks, fail, learn from their mistakes, and improve their decision-making skills by having complete ownership. They become good tactical players.
● Negotiation skills: Playing in the streets with a group of kids from the neighbourhood is bound to bring up a few arguments such as who will bat or bowl first, out vs. not out, it's a run vs. no run, and so on. By doing unstructured games, kids develop negotiation skills.
How have unstructured games benefited professional athletes?
Unstructured games were the developmental pathway for many elite players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi, etc.
Cristiano Ronaldo, in an interview, said, "I grew up on the working-class islands of Madeira, where my obsession with the game and highly competitive nature came from playing in the neighbourhood pickup games. The small playing area helped me improve my ball control. If it wasn't for futsal, I wouldn't be the player I am today."
Sachin Tendulkar, in an interview, said, "We used to play cricket and tennis on the terrace, and every time the ball fell, we had to run four floors to collect the ball back. There were no elevators then, something that explains the secret behind my strong legs!"
Kobe Bryant reported, "As a kid, I would take a crayon and draw a line on the wall, then take my dad's tube socks and roll them up and start shooting on the wall. I'd be dunking on the wall. And my mom would see it and just lose her mind. These are the types of things kids used to do, or at least I used to do, anyway."
Michael Jordan reportedly developed his basketball skills in his backyard. He and his brother Larry, who is one year older than Michael, went full-on at each other on the court every day, which unleashed the fierce competitor in him.
If you see Messi's creativity, it is simply out of the world. He said, "I used to tag along with my two older brothers wherever they would go out to play in small streets. That’s the secret behind my creativity.”
If you read some of the Indian cricketers' interviews about their batting or bowling strengths, most of them developed playing unstructured cricket in the neighbourhood.
Zaheer Khan and Jaspreet Bumrah played a lot of tennis ball cricket in their growing years. They developed the art of bowling Yorkers watching their heroes on television. It is very difficult to bowl a Yorker with a tennis ball as you need to put a lot of effort to bowl full as the tennis ball is very light compared to the cricket ball. Later, when they played with a regular cricket ball which is heavier, bowling Yorkers became easy.
Kedhar Jadhav has developed to pull the short ball straight over mid-on because growing up, there were no runs when you hit the ball to the sides, so he mastered that shot and used it a lot in international cricket.
As the unstructured play has come down drastically, parents or coaches need to facilitate unstructured play at the coaching centre or in their area twice or thrice a week as it has many benefits.