Studies indicate, and parents can verify, that the creativity of free play—without interference from adults—helps kids learn leadership skills, conflict resolution, and problem solving. And for developing motor skills, core strength, agility, balance, and coordination, free play is essential.
Recall times watching kids gathered to play soccer or baseball in a park or neighborhood lot—or friends shooting hoops in a park or driveway. Think back to playing hop-scotch, tag, red-light-green-light, kick-the-can, and other childhood games. All those activities are central to the physical, mental, social, and emotional development of children.
Those once-familiar spontaneous games have been replaced with adult-organized, year-round, and specialized training, and the results are disturbing.
John O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, says, “Before the age of 12, unstructured free play is most important to the physical, mental, and emotional development of the youth athlete.”
The discovery of a variety of movement patterns through playing games and unstructured activities that involve running, cutting, jumping, hopping, skipping, climbing, kicking, and throwing helps children develop physical literacy, balance, coordination, and strong bones and muscles. These accomplishments set the foundation for future success in sports as well as health and wellness into adulthood. Nurturing a variety of activities during the early years also enhances brain function, creativity, social skills, and confidence.
At about age 12, while specific-skill development begins to become more important, free play is still vitally important. From my own experience, with both of my kids playing multiple competitive sports, I’m convinced that they have benefited from good coaching. Still, most of their athletic development has taken place exploring in our backyard—by themselves or with friends.
Not only is free play imperative to athletic development, studies show that athletes who spend more time in unorganized free play—such as pickup games—decrease the probability for injuries while playing organized sports.
As one example of a successful ball-player who came by his athleticism naturally, Yogi Berra the American baseball icon, got his start playing sandlot baseball with friends from his neighborhood.
Pick-up basketball was so engrained in the life of Michael Jordan that he included a “Love of the Game” clause in his NBA contract, allowing him to play competitive off-season pick-up games.
And many credit the creativity of soccer legend Lionel Messi, both on and off the field, to his early years of development while playing street soccer.
These examples emphasize that athletes should learn what they can from well-informed coaches while understanding that developing into a successful athlete also requires practice and experimentation on their own and with friends—without interference from adults.
Most experts agree and studies support that this trend toward less free play plus more structured training is having a negative impact on the long-term development of young athletes.