In this kind of learning, there is a basic structure to a lesson but there’s not necessarily any definitive, rigid template for learners to adhere to other than that. Instead, it’s about promoting exploration, revelation, and agency in learning (Hendricks, 2019).

In the world of education, there has been a growing interest in unstructured learning as a complementary approach to traditional structured learning methods. Unstructured learning, also known as informal learning, encompasses activities that are driven by curiosity, exploration, and self-directed discovery; the emphasis being on play which is a prevalent factor in schools across Scandinavia (an area we will discuss later). While structured learning certainly has its place in schools, research into unstructured learning has revealed a plethora of benefits for students. Let’s delve into some of the key findings and implications of research into unstructured learning in school environments.

Unlocking Creativity and Critical Thinking

One of the primary advantages of unstructured learning is its ability to unlock creativity and critical thinking skills in students. Research conducted by educational psychologists has shown that when students engage in unstructured activities such as free play, exploration of nature, or self-directed projects, they are more likely to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to problems. This type of open-ended learning environment fosters a sense of autonomy and encourages students to take ownership of their learning journey.

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation

Another area of research has focused on the role of unstructured learning in fostering intrinsic motivation among students. Unlike structured learning, which often relies on external rewards or punishments, unstructured learning activities are inherently intrinsically motivating. Studies have demonstrated that when students are given the freedom to pursue their interests and passions in an unstructured setting, they are more likely to be engaged, enthusiastic, and motivated to learn. This intrinsic motivation not only leads to deeper learning experiences but also instils a lifelong love of learning.

Promoting Social and Emotional Development

Research has also highlighted the social and emotional benefits of unstructured learning in school environments. Through activities such as unstructured play, collaborative projects, and peer interactions, students develop essential social skills such as communication, cooperation, empathy, and conflict resolution. Moreover, unstructured learning provides opportunities for students to explore and express their emotions in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, fostering emotional intelligence and resilience.

Enhancing Holistic Development

Furthermore, research into unstructured learning has underscored its role in enhancing holistic development among students. Unstructured activities such as artistic expression, outdoor exploration, and self-directed inquiry cater to a diverse range of learning styles and intelligences. This holistic approach to learning promotes the development of the whole child—cognitive, social, emotional, and physical—leading to well-rounded individuals who are better equipped to navigate the complexities of the modern world.

Here are some examples of activities that promote messy, unstructured learning in schools but without forgetting the need for safe space for students:

Exploratory Projects: Students are given open-ended prompts or questions and are encouraged to explore and research them independently. For example, students might be asked to investigate a topic of personal interest or relevance to their community without specific guidelines on how to approach it.

Inquiry-Based Learning: Teachers pose thought-provoking questions or present real-world problems for students to investigate. Students then research, experiment, and collaborate to find solutions or answers, with the process being more important than the final outcome.

Student-Led Discussions: Rather than following a strict curriculum or lesson plan, teachers facilitate discussions where students take the lead in exploring a topic or text. This allows for diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and deeper engagement with the material.

Independent Research Projects: Students are given the freedom to choose their own research topics, formulate questions, and conduct investigations. They may present their findings through written reports, presentations, or creative projects, fostering autonomy and self-directed learning.

Open-Ended Assignments: Assignments are designed to have multiple possible approaches or outcomes, allowing students to express their creativity and individuality. For example, instead of a traditional essay, students might be tasked with creating a multimedia project or designing a solution to a real-world problem.

Exploratory Play: In early childhood education, unstructured play is recognized as a valuable form of learning. Teachers provide a variety of materials and environments for children to explore, experiment, and create, promoting imagination, problem-solving, and social skills.

Genius Hour or Passion Projects: Students are given dedicated time during the school week to pursue their passions and interests. They can choose any topic or project they are passionate about and spend time researching, creating, and sharing their learning with their peers.

Field Trips and Experiential Learning: Taking students outside of the classroom to explore museums, nature centres, historical sites, or other real-world settings provides rich opportunities for unstructured learning. Students can engage in hands-on activities, observation, and inquiry-based exploration.

Socratic Seminars: Students engage in deep discussions about complex texts or topics, guided by open-ended questions rather than a strict agenda. Through dialogue and debate, students develop critical thinking skills, communication skills, and a deeper understanding of the material.

Project-Based Learning: While this often involves structured projects, there can be elements of unstructured learning within it. For example, students might have flexibility in how they research and present their findings, allowing for creativity and individual exploration within the framework of the project.

The Scandinavian Way

The Scandinavian approach to education is characterised by a student-centred philosophy that prioritises three core values: togetherness, play-based learning and exploration of the natural world. Drawing inspiration from progressive educational theories, Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland emphasise these elements while focusing on well-being. This approach values fostering creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills over rote memorisation, and places a high emphasis on cultivating a supportive and inclusive learning environment.


In conclusion, research into unstructured learning in school environments has shed light on its myriad benefits for students. From unlocking creativity and critical thinking to fostering intrinsic motivation, promoting social and emotional development, and enhancing holistic development, unstructured learning plays a crucial role in nurturing well-rounded individuals who are prepared to thrive in a rapidly changing world. As a result, students develop leadership skills and a joy for learning. The process becomes dependent on their involvement and participation: a process that they engage with, not something that happens to them. As educators continue to explore innovative approaches to teaching and learning, integrating elements of unstructured learning into school curricula holds immense promise for creating engaging, meaningful, and impactful educational experiences for students.

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About the author

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Andrew Timbrell

Andrew Timbrell is a primary teacher and freelancer writer with over a decade of classroom experience, passionate about teacher well-being and personal development. Alongside his teaching and subject lead roles, he has been a part of senior leadership and is acutely aware of the wider, holistic view of education.

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