Why Youth Athletes Need More Free Play

STACK Expert P.J. Strebel's advice to parents: Let your kids play!

I was lucky enough to spend my summers growing up at Camp Coniston, a YMCA summer camp where my mother was a nurse. Basketball, tennis, horseback riding, land sports, soccer, frisbee, ropes courses, diving boards—you name it, we could do it. I used this "playground" every day and had free play all summer long. This was in addition to baseball, basketball and football, which I played on organized teams in my hometown minutes away. I never played only one sport all year round. I never had to miss out on playing around, because I was in my 9th month of club soccer as a 10-year-old boy. I had as much free play as I could handle.

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Free Play

Because I played sports and enjoyed an abundant amount of free play, I was able to draw on my previous athletic experiences to figure out my own level and most appropriate style of athletic performance. Nowadays, youngsters are "playing" less and participating more in year-long single sports.

Tremendous growth can be attained by free play—not the type that happens on organized teams, but the type that happens in backyards with buddies or on playgrounds, where the kids make up their own teams and rules without help or instruction from adults.

Huge motor development occurs when adolescents are exposed to a large array of athletic activities such as running, jumping, climbing, playing tag, crawling, somersaulting and wrestling. Just because your child plays on three different travel teams throughout the year doesn't mean he or she has the motor control, strength or coordination to be a resilient athlete who will be less susceptible to overuse and non-contact injuries. Adults are hindering growth in athleticism, self-confidence and self-worth by hovering over their children and not letting them explore movement, fail, figure it out and create success on their own.

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So what can we do to combat this?

LET THE KIDS PLAY! Let them make up games and teams, let them climb trees, skin their knees, try as many different sports as possible and have self-guided discovery. As adults, we try to make things easier for our children, but we may be keeping them away from some of best learning experiences in their lifetimes. Falling, failing and losing are not fatal. On the contrary, they allow kids to learn what doesn't work, what ways are faster, what ways are harder, and what they enjoy the most. Let exercise, activity and play become a lifelong journey.

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By fostering the healthy habit of play for our children, we are setting them up for a life of health, wellness and curiosity.

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