Kids Don’t “Play” Youth Sports

It you are a parent of elementary school kids as I am, you probably have logged more than a few hours on the sidelines of your child’s baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, or other sport. This is part of being a good parent in the US these days — showing up at the games, supporting the team. Participation in youth sports has been steadily growing over the last 20 years. As more kids have joined teams, more parents have been actively participating on the sidelines.

Next time you are at one of your child’s games do an experiment for me, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the game. Don’t worry, your kid and his or her team will be just fine if you aren’t actively watching the action for a few minutes. Just listen.

I tried this last night at my young son’s soccer game and heard an ongoing chorus of “Get in there!” “Attack the ball!” “Heads up!” “_____ Get Back!”  “Blue, Spread Out!”  “Talk to Each Other”  “_____ Pass to ______, He’s Open!”  “Defense!  Come On Defense!”  “Good Try!  Good Try!”  It was positive, constant, and all the voices were adults. This is a first and second grade soccer team. While there are some stand-out players, most of the kids are just learning the game. Technically, the adults aren’t even supposed to keep score. Parents and coaches work together to make sure playing on the team is a positive, educational experience.

We should not confuse this with play. Kids on organized youth teams do not “play” in the traditional child’s play manner. They exercise, they learn rules from adults, they are told where to go and what to do. They are taught to support their team and be good spectators when on the sidelines.

Now close your eyes and remember a time that your kids were truly playing, without any adult direction or interference. Chances are, especially if there was a decent group of kids with mixed ages (a rarity these days), you remember kids creating and perhaps arguing about a set of rules that defined a game that few adults would want to play. You may even remember kids getting bumped and bruised and the group pulling back and re-evaluating (arguing) over how to make the game more fair. You probably also remember an excess of noise. Screaming, laughing, and yelling at each other are all part and parcel of child play.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if at the same time participation in youth sports has been increasing, old-fashioned playground play, without adults present has all but disappeared. Why should we care that adult-run games are taking over child-directed games and play? Kids learn distinctly different things from play than they do from sports. They learn how to create rules and how to modify them when they aren’t working. They have to deal directly with conflicts and learn how to work through them on their own. Generally, kid directly play is much more active with more kids moving at a given time. Kid directed play makes kids highly motivated to pay attention and stay on top of things so that they don’t let their friends down or fail in other ways. This need to pay attention may be critical for proper brain development. There is even evidence that free-form, rough and tumble, kid-directed play can even reduce ADHD.

Last night on the sidelines, my son and one of his teammates kept dropping back, kicking an extra ball between them and even doing some fake karate moves at one another. The drive to play was strong and they were giving their bodies and brains  what they needed. They weren’t however being good team members and before long the coach had them stop, sit down, and watch the game.

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