Free Play

Play: activity, motion, fun, sport, freedom. Everyone loves to play, to move, to have fun, to be active. Sports are a form of play. Before children join organized sports teams, they play unstructured, informal games. They chase each other around the school yard, play keep away or shoot hoops at a park. Nobody tells the child to participate; he chooses to play.

The Reasons that Kids Quit Sports

  • Practice is boring (too many drills)
  • Emotional stress from excessive performance demands (too focused on winning too early)
  • Feelings of constant failure, typically due to negative coaching
  • Not playing enough

When I was young, everyone wanted me to take golf lessons. My best friend in elementary school was a great golfer; my grandfather golfed; and my baseball coach’s son golfed. My dad’s business partners golfed, so my dad encouraged me to golf to look out for my best interests in the professional world. He frequently asked if I wanted to take lessons and I declined.

Even though so many people wanted me to take lessons, I never played golf, hit balls at a driving range, swung a golf club or even walked on a golf course until I graduated from college and spent a year living in Sweden. My host father was 85-years-old, retired and determined to teach me Swedish. He played golf almost every day once the snow melted in the spring, and I frequently skipped school to play with him. He refused to speak to me in English, and to that point I had learned very little Swedish, so I played without instructions. He handed me a club and pointed at the hole, and I hit the ball and chased my errant shots. We never kept score; hitting the ball straight was challenge enough.

In Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People, he categorizes the talent development process into three stages: Early, Middle and Late, which parallel the Romance, Precision and Generalization stages set forth by Alfred North Whitehead in 1929. About the Romance Period, Whitehead wrote:

In the stage of romance the emphasis must always be on freedom, to allow the child to see for itself and to act for itself. Romance is an awakening or arousing stage. It sets in motion the possibilities, through continued engagement, of the acquirement of precision and subsequent fruition.

I never sought golf lessons because I never developed an interest or passion for the game. Rather than play a round of golf to develop an interest in the sport, everyone believed that I needed lessons before I could hit a ball. As adults, this makes sense – before an adult participates in an activity, he prefers to prepare so that he does not embarrass himself. A 40-year-old businessman and non-golfer asked to play a round of golf with a client would familiarize himself with the game and golf’s etiquette – maybe even taking lessons – before the meeting.

Children are different.

“Children are self-directed learners — they are naturally curious — and how they learn is through play,” says David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play.

Many children quit sports for the same reason that I resisted lessons. The instruction and competition fail to awaken an interest in the sport because coaches and parents eliminate the freedom and the fun. Rather than allow young children to play sports, we rush to train young athletes.

Children younger than five generally do well with sports and activities in which the emphasis is on fun (and developing their motor skills is a byproduct). Until kids turn four or five, the nervous system isn’t ready for explosive, coordinated movements like throwing a baseball or driving a golf ball, says Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “Anything that requires rapid response is not going to be as successful for them as those activities where they can just run around, kick a ball or swim,” he says.

I received a call from the mother of a six-year-old who wanted basketball lessons for her son. She wanted her son to have some success when he started in a league. Before one trains at a sport and builds the necessary skills, he must develop a passion and interest for the game. Without a sense of the fun of playing the sport, lessons lack value. Why work to improve your skills if the sport holds no value?

More and more, we eliminate unstructured playful activities and replace these activities with more structured activities, like organized sports teams and leagues. Organized sports have their place, but play activities have value too.

According to research from the University of Michigan on how children ages 3 to 12 spend their time, over the past 20 years there has been a drop of 12 hours a week of free time overall, with unstructured activities like walking or camping falling by 50 percent — and structured sports going up by 50 percent. “I’m amazed by the parents around here that have their kids scheduled all the time,” says Julie Bell-Voorhees, a mother of four. “Pick them up at 10, drop them off at 10:30, pick them up again at 2, drop them at another event. It’s like we feel we have to have our children’s lives mapped out by the time they’re 10. Like, ‘My kid will play piano, play golf, and speak French.’ Where’s the fun in that?” (Newman)

Today’s youth embrace activities like skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross for the freedom, motion and fun. “According to a study in January’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, teens who skate or Rollerblade more than four times per week are half as likely to become obese as inactive peers and twice as likely to remain at a healthy weight as teens who play team sports. ‘Noncompetitive sports are the ones people tend to continue to participate in,’ says John Hopkins professor Robert W. Blum,” (Angel).

Sports like skateboarding are popular because they lack adult interference. Children learn by watching other skaters and trying tricks on their own. Skaters help fellow skaters: it is a collaborative sport rather than a competitive sport. Organized youth sports often ignore play and turn into a structured, adult-centered, goal-oriented activity. Too much competition too soon drives players to more recreational and active pursuits.

Organized League

  • Only five players per team play at a time
  • Best players play a majority of the minutes
  • Coaches criticize mistakes
  • Coaches coach to win
  • Coaches run plays
  • Coaches attack the opponent’s weakest players
  • Game stops for timeouts, free throws, etc.
  • Officials control the game
  • Game played for a pre-determined amount of time
  • Play with the assigned team as picked by  the coaches
  • Keep score and track winners

Kids Pick-Up Games

  • Everyone plays
  • Balance the teams to make them fair
  • Players try new moves
  • Players play for fun
  • Players’ movement is unrestricted
  • Players help the weaker players
  • Game never stops
  • Players control the game and resolve disputes
  • Players play as long as it’s fun
  • Play with friends
  • No performance demands

Informal games or unstructured play differ from organized leagues. Adults control organized leagues and superimpose their values, often ignoring the players’ feelings, beliefs or motivations. These leagues socialize children to accept the adults’ way. Children who dislike the environment drop out. Competition, winning, standings and all-star teams dominate leagues.

When kids play on their own, without adult presence, the score’s importance fades and winning or losing is a non-issue. In elementary school, we competed in soccer, basketball or football at every recess. We raced up and down the court and called our own fouls. We did not stop to shoot free throws, and we played the entire recess; no timeouts to set up strategy. We argued. We kept score. We fought. We imitated our professional heroes and used our imagination. We played freely, had fun and stayed active. Everyone played, nobody suffered from stress if he lost and nobody worried about failing. However, as soon as the bell sounded, we got a drink, returned to class and forgot who won. We created our game, used our imaginations and explored our environment. We gained confidence through trying new skills and moves and grew socially as we interacted with our peers.

Our school team ran plays and had defensive assignments. We rarely scrimmaged. We ran sprints. We did defensive slides. Some players rarely played. We no longer explored new moves and we shot only “good shots,” which meant no three-pointers. We stopped using our imagination and followed the coach’s directions.

We loved to play and compete. We learned to enjoy practice as we developed new skills. Our recess games motivated us to improve and inspired our love for the game. We had a balance of free play and coaching. We used our imagination to expand our skills, while our coaches harnessed our skills and gave us tools to compete. We loved recess for the fun, freedom and exploration, and our school team for the challenge, hard work, teamwork and competition. Unfortunately, many young athletes today lack free play. Schools limit recess time, and few parents allow their children to walk to a park to play pick-up games; kids miss the opportunity to develop the love for playing through playing.

“Children learn through playing, through active exploration that feeds their imagination, not by always having others organize the world for them,” says Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children’s Center and Harvard Medical School and the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World (Newman).

When kids play, there are no measurable outcomes. Play lacks defined goals, so we underestimate its value as a learning tool. We understand the importance of executing fundamentals correctly, so we value instruction and training. More to the point, we cringe when children make mistake after mistake. However, learning is a series of mistakes, and people learn best when they figure out things for themselves.

While organized sports offer many benefits, playing organized sports too early has drawbacks. Rae Pica, author of Your Active Child, believes kids under 12-years-old should not be in organized, competitive team sports because their bodies are not yet developed to accomplish certain athletic tasks. Furthermore, she and other experts say kids in their primary years “simply aren’t mentally equipped” to understand the complex rules and strategies. In free play, children create the rules and develop their own strategies. They engage their imaginations and negotiate the appropriate rules with the other players, developing interpersonal skills, conflict resolution and teamwork.

Hard to believe? Well, maybe that’s because many adults have a kind of amnesia about what was important to us growing up. We (and by “we,” I mean I) tend to think, Well, it’s a tougher world than the one we grew up in, and our kids must learn to compete on the reality show called, um, Reality. So we see unstructured play as a waste of time (Newman).

According to Sport Sociologist Jay Coakley, “Childhood has been changed from an age of exploration and freedom to an age of preparation and controlled learning.” Many parents rush their child into organized, competitive leagues because they want their child to succeed. We value competitive team sports, but overlook the importance of free play. “Playing informal sports clearly involves the use of interpersonal and decision-making skills. Children must be creative to organize games and keep them going,” while “organized sports demand that children be able to manage their relationships with adult authority figures,” (Coakley).

What happened to play for the sake of playing? Why do we need seven-year-olds competing for a national championship or nine-year-olds specializing? Young athletes (ages 6-12) should focus on fun, playful activities like tag, dodgeball, kickball, stickball and other neighborhood games and acquiring a multitude of different skills, irrespective of the sport or score.

When kids develop through play, they can adapt and improve quickly when playing a new sport. Strength Coach Scott Phelps wrote that “at the beginning of first grade my oldest son did not know how to play soccer, but by the 3rd or 4th week of school he was one of the kids that was at the same level as all the other kids.” Young children need more play to develop a wide array of skills and inspire a love of sport.

When I received an email from a mother who wanted me to train her eight-year-old son, I suggested that she take her son to the park and see how much he really likes to train. She replied that she would buy a portable hoop and see how often he practices. I replied that if he – on his own – is really into it, I would work with him. She has not replied.

Parents think they need a trainer to motivate their child to train. The child only needs motivating because children do not want to train for some distant goal. They want to play. Adults feel a need for training and arrange these opportunities, when their child would be just as happy playing with friends at the park or at an open gym.

Before we develop elite athletes, we must create a fun atmosphere. When children demonstrate the love for the game and a real desire to play and improve, then seek leagues with better coaching or more competitive teams or personal trainers. However, the passion to play comes first. The focus must switch from a competitive model with national championships to a more playful model which encourages participation, develops an athletic base and nurtures a love of sport for a lifetime of health and fitness.

Buy Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development as a paperback or as an e-book. 207-page book divided into four major age groupings and four major skill categories (Athletic, Psychological, Tactical and Technical).

“Brian McCormick hits a home run with his book on youth basketball…This is one of the few sources that is a quality book that hits the mark for players and coaches. I recommend it highly.” – Jerry Krause, Nat’l. Assoc. of Basketball Coaches Research Chairman

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