For a lot of today’s parents, daily play was a big part of their childhood, including my own. It happened daily and in most cases it occurred spontaneously. Play happened on our daily walk to and from school, at school during recess, after school with neighbourhood friends and then again on the weekends. There were no coaches, no teachers and no parents who told us what to do and how to do it. And boy did we ever have fun.
It was through these daily doses of play that, without even realizing it, we developed and honed our gross and fine motor skills, our coordination including balance, rhythm and spatial awareness. We learned how to socially interact with our peers while learning about social relationships, cooperation, compromise and leadership.
Play often happened outside where we were exposed to fresh air and vitamin D from the sun. We blew off steam and released hormones that not only made us feel good but increased the health and power of our brains. Through our self-chosen games and activities we spent time running, sprinting, dodging, weaving, jumping, hopping, climbing, crawling, and rolling. Little did we know we were developing our systemic strength and cardiovascular conditioning, and with more time playing, we spent less time sitting.
Sadly, during key developmental years, kids today are spending less time engaged in unstructured free play, both at home and at school, and as result they’re missing out on the physical, mental, social and cognitive benefits that free play provides.
With the increase and popularity of youth sports today, it’s very common for kids to be enrolled in organized sports as early as three years old where they’re being taught sport specific skills in an organized and structured fashion, long before they are physically and mentally ready for it. They’re told what to do and how to do it without the opportunity to discover and create their own games and activities. With more and more of their time spent doing organized sports, less and less time is available to engage in unstructured free play.
There’s no question a child who engages in regular free play from a young age is better prepared for the rigors of playing youth sports when they become older; and let’s face it, with the direction youth sports is headed, the more prepared kids are the better, not only in regards to their performance but most importantly in their ability to reduce their risk of injury.
A child who has played sports for many years won’t necessarily have a solid foundation of movement skills or athleticism. Yes, they will have great sport specific skills but that does not necessarily translate into having great athletic skills.
It’s likely the days of daily free play that we enjoyed as kids is over. So what role can youth sports play to enhance the growth and development of children aside from developing sport specific skills?
Coaches and parents, working together and in the best interest of the kids have the opportunity to combine daily physical activity and youth sports in such a way that will benefit a player’s physical and mental health as well as their long term athletic development. Imagine if fifteen minutes of every pre-practice and pre-game time was dedicated to non-sport specific play and physical activity that was fun, age and stage appropriate, engaging and provided opportunities for kids to move in as many different ways as possible?
Playing games and activities such as tag, jump rope, relay races incorporating various forms of locomotion in multiple directions, throwing, catching and kicking games using non-dominant hands and feet, etc. will not only do wonders for your practices but will do wonders for your players as well. Kick your activities up a notch by adding in variables such Red Light Green Light or Rock Paper Scissors. The options are endless and are only limited by your imagination.
This small investment of time in your players over the course of a season will lead to improved athletic skills such as coordination, balance, speed, agility, power and strength in addition to reducing injuries and improved self-confidence. By investing in your players and not the scoreboard, everyone wins.
David Kittner, aka the Youth Fitness Guy and co-founder of Prowess Strength and Conditioning in Peterborough, Ontario, conducts athletic training and development programs, workshops and clinics for athletes, sports teams, parents, teachers and coaches. He also presents internationally at Fitness, Coaching and Physical Education conferences including The New York Rangers, USA Hockey and the Youth Fitness Summit.
In addition to being the 2014 IYCA Coach of the Year David is a contributing author for the international bestselling book, The Definitive Guide to Youth Athletic Strength, Conditioning and Performance.
For more information and to contact David visit his web site at www.YouthFitnessGuy.com