Learning in Unstructured Structure

by | Jul 19, 2021 | ABA, Avondale, Occupational Therapy, Peoria, Surprise

Call me non-traditional if you may, but one of the best things I have ever done while working with my pediatric clients is giving our session an “unstructured structure”. I’ll explain. 

Some of you may recall times as a student, in which most of your learning was structured. For their own sanity, many of the adults in your life may have asked (possibly begged) you to complete tasks in a certain order or way. Eliminating chances for error or delayed completion of a task. This most likely left you with little opportunity to make your own choices, dampened moments that would have otherwise fostered creativity, and left you wondering “what would have happened if I had thrown the spaghetti all over the wall.” 

I have learned while working with children, many of whom have difficulties with self-regulation, that sometimes deconstructing the “boxes” I wish them to tick off, can produce a liberating experience full of self-discovery, and increased participation during sessions. 

Unstructured structure should look different for every child. Each child has unique attention thresholds, sensory needs, interests, and thinking patterns altogether. Below you’ll find some examples of unstructured structure that you can try out immediately with your child at home during their life skills learning, homework, or home program time. 

  1. Activity Bank Schedule: Create an “activity bank.” Explain to your child, “these are all the items we need to finish this morning, you can pick any order you’d like!”
  2. 2 Serious 2 Silly: This can be applied to almost any task and is great for kids with difficulty sitting still for long. Prompt the child to complete part of the task “serious” and the next part they can complete it in a “silly” way. For example: “let’s draw 2 serious squares, then let’s draw 2 silly squares.” OR “Let’s fold laundry together, first we will fold 2 shirts, then we will be silly and put on 2 pieces of clothing on the wrong body part.” 
  3. “Slide into Work”: For children that are working on mastering one-step tasks, I usually have them partake in some form of this activity. I will tell the child, “We are going to go down the slide. In order to get there, we need to go up the stairs, button 1 button on our shirt, then we can slide down.” Then rinse/repeat until the task is done. 
  4. Choose Your Own Adventure: Giving children choices is a great motivator to increase participation. You can use the same concept as the “choose your own adventure” style books as an inspiration for your child’s daily schedule. It is literally an unstructured structure!
  5. Scavenger Hunts: Another technique I’ve used to boost participation is scavenger hunts. It feels a lot like “free time” and is very fun, while increasing your child’s engagement in tasks. For example, if we are working on learning to tie shoes, myself or the child will hide the shoes first. When they are found, the child ties the shoe before we move on to find the next one. 
  6. Big Blank Canvas: Few things are more satisfying than ruining a blank canvas. The Jackson Pollock in all of us, just can’t resist. When working on pre-writing strokes, a fun way to boost participation is to provide a large blank area to scribble and practice. Whiteboards, butcher paper, actual canvas, mirrors, windows, etc. work great! We draw stripes on dogs (working on vertical lines), we make the milky way galaxy (working on circular scribbles), we draw robots and houses (working on squares and rectangles)…you get the picture!

Next time you are planning out your child’s home program or homework schedule, give some of these ideas a try! Don’t forget to comment below, share these tips with a friend, and tag us on socials! If you have any concerns with your child’s development, give us a call at 1-800-376-3440.


Hannah Vyhmeister M.S., OTR/L