If you are involved in youth sports today you already know how challenging and exhausting it can be to keep up with all the practices, games, and related travel. In fact, critics argue we have become too formal with youth sports, often creating conditions that mirror college and pro sports more than fun, recreational youth sports. Kids today play sports year-round, specialize in specific sports, and some play multiple sports at the same time. As we continue to push kids with intense, serious sport schedules, we may be overlooking arguably one of the greatest features of what youth sports that may be going by the wayside: The power of play.
Play is defined as “things that people, especially children, do for pleasure rather than as work.” Play, therefore, is the opposite of work, and play is an activity that children do for pleasure. Play is also an invaluable human developmental experience, as play involves creativity, physical and mental energy, problem-solving, teamwork, and countless additional life experiences and skills. Dr. Doris Bergen, a Psychology Professor at Miami, offers her thoughts on the value of play below:
“Play is one of the main ways that children really consolidate their learning. The way we really make our skills permanent and enriched and highly developed, is often through our play experiences.”
Notice that Bergen’s focus on the value of play does not include things like competitive sports, adult structure, winning, or pursuing D1 athletic scholarships. No, the real value of play is rooted in playing random pick up games, making creative rules as you go, enjoying hearty laughs and fun, and using problem solving and resolving conflicts whenever necessary. Important human development comes from learning these life skills in social and interactive ways, not from having your child specialize in one sport, and engaging in that sport until he or she is burned out from playing. Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown goes on to add:
“The presence or absence of play in child development has a great deal to do with competency, resiliency, and emotional health. Play is not frivolous and not just for kids, but something that is an inherent part of human nature.”
The challenge we have today with getting kids to play more is that they simply do not have the time and energy while competing in travel leagues and other high-intensity youth sport experiences. Furthermore, the nature of competitive youth sports today is built around winning, and very often you win by pushing players to go as far as they can physically, technically, and mentally. Comparatively, when kids play, there is no focus directed toward winning and/or making it to college sports, but instead simply the activity itself and all the great things that flow from free play. Youth sports have become big business, but play is about fun — see the difference?
And finally, former Major League Baseball player Tom House offers even more insights about why we need to encourage kids to play:
It’s a carefree love of sports we catch like a bug in childhood that House calls the power of play. “If you’re in sports for any length of time, you’re always gonna be a terminal adolescent. When parents and coaches care deeply about the outcome of games and put pressure on kids to succeed, they can disrupt this feeling and even cause the child to quit.”
While it may be challenging to get your kids to enjoy free play while navigating their intense sport schedule, it is still a conversation worth entertaining. Kids gain so much from playing, as the focus is on shared fun with friends, and being spontaneous and creative —- not hyper-intense sport competition, winning, and earning a D1 scholarship. Help your kids learn and grow by encouraging them to get outside and enjoy their friends and surroundings, as these fun, care-free moments will ultimately help them develop in healthy and positive ways.