Over the last year, the simple pleasure of being able to step outside your front door and play with your friends has been removed from children’s lives due to the various COVID lockdowns and restrictions. With restrictions lifting, children’s playing habits have not returned to normal. A recent study in the UK has shown that 51% of children said they played outside with their friends less than a year ago. 23% also said they were playing less organized sport than pre-pandemic.
Hopefully, this is a temporary blip, and the children can once again go out and play with their friends, but it comes on the back of a long-term decline in outdoor play and physical fitness.
Parents often disparage the relevance of outdoor play and, instead, drive their child to an organized sport activity where an adult tells the children what to do. Parents may think that they are helping their children, but they may not realize the value of outdoor play.
Play Means Fun and Creativity
If you watch the two videos below, you can see the children smiling. They have organized themselves and are playing. They take turns, try new things, and then they move onto something else.
They don’t spend time queueing or listening to instructions or being forced to compete in front of a crowd of shouting adults. They play.
If you watch the videos again, you will see the different movements that have to happen. They organize their work: rest ratios by saying, ‘It’s your turn now, Jack’ when they get tired. It is surprising how fit the children get on their own.
As they master an activity or get bored, they develop an alternative to keep everyone involved. Playing the game with their friends is the end goal rather than winning at all costs. The children learn to:
- Be patient
- Adapt to changing circumstances (Billy gets called in to eat his dinner and an odd number of players).
These are useful ‘soft skills in life that are neglected or under-developed when an adult sets all the rules and chooses the games and the teams.
Parents Set The Tone
When the decline in fitness is talked about anecdotally, much emphasis is placed on school sport or physical education. But, what about the parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children get outside and play?
Part of the reason is probably due to the increased reliance on the car. The streets are full of either parked cars or moving cars now, and getting to and from the local park may be hazardous with busier roads. ‘Mom’s taxi’ takes children on journeys less than a mile away rather than walking or cycling as a family.
But, part of the reason could be that parents have simply forgotten how to play with their children. As any parent who has chased a four-year-old around for an afternoon will know, the children can tire you out. Playing with children can be your fitness training. It is also suitable for the soul.
I know that when children who have been outdoors playing with their parents and other children walk into our athletics or gymnastics classes, they are much more able and receptive to learning new skills than those who have been driven everywhere. They are also socially more adept at learning about taking turns, listening to others, and collaborating with their peers: lessons learned by playing with other children.
Practical Outdoor Game Ideas
Here are some ideas that could help kick start your child’s outdoor play. They may help your child develop their fitness appropriately to their age and stage of development.
A good opportunity for you to combine throwing with your child. Get any throwing object like a tennis ball or frisbee and throw it as far as you can. Both of you run to the object and then the other person throws it as far as possible. Continue across the park and then return. Alternatively, one of you throw and fetch and return, and then the other person takes their turn. The former is more continuous, the latter has the benefit of shortening the sprint distance for the less able thrower.
A classic, which is surprisingly hard. This is what kids live for. Have some “safe” areas but set a time limit on how long they can spend there. A smaller space means more short sprints, but more agility. A larger space means longer sprints and adults get the advantage.
Kick The Can
Another classic that helps develop invasion game strategies. Place a drink can in the play area. One child is the defender, the others run and hide. The defender has to find the hiders and tag them before they run back to kick the can over. If a child is tagged, they become a defender too.
Don’t underestimate the power of play for your child. Lining up in a uniform to get struck out at softball is not the same as playing on their terms. Organized activities have their place, but they too often replace play which should be the building block of every child’s development. The times spent playing with your children may also be the best part of parenthood.
Read More: The Sedentary Youth Athlete: Is Your Child Moving Enough?