I am certainly not against organized youth sports. I think they are a great way for kids to develop general athletic skills, sample different sports, get physical exercise, build friendships, learn about handling success and failure, etc. However, I think that if we were able to step back and truly observe kids in organized sports environments compared to free-play sports environments I think that we would see that the free-play environment is vastly superior on so many important levels.
My 7-year-old son played outside with a couple of neighbors several times while we were visiting my wife’s family in Kentucky over Christmas. He had only met the kids a few times previously. One day he was outside playing for over 6 hours and only came in the house once so that he could eat lunch (he made a PBJ that he took outside to eat).
One day after he came home from playing outside, he couldn’t wait to show me how he made a catch right along the sideline (which was a pile of leaves) when they were playing football and he was able to keep his feet in bounds. “I was AJ Green,” he said.
A couple of days before we were supposed to go back home, my 4-year-old daughter got sick and we were contemplating leaving early. When we told my son that morning, he started crying because he said he promised the neighbors he would meet them outside at 10am to play and he didn’t want to let them down. We decided to stay.
The last day we were there, he was playing outside when I took my in-law’s dog out to go to the bathroom. I could hear the kids over at the neighbor’s house playing basketball although I couldn’t see them since the hoop was on the other side of their house. I could hear them going over the game situations constantly (the score, the time left in the game, who’s ball it was), they were communicating (matchups, calling for passes), and most importantly you could tell they were having a blast. When he came inside for dinner later that day, I asked my son if he had fun playing basketball, he replied disappointedly, “You were watching us?” He thought I was out there watching their game. I told him I wasn’t watching, I could just hear them when I took the dog out.
This was certainly not my son’s first time playing outside with friends or playing pick-up games, however, since it was so recent it made me think again about how important these types of opportunities are for kids mentally, physically, and socially.
He owned the story of the game. Since I wasn’t there watching him, he got the opportunity to tell me what happened in his own words (and give a physical demonstration). He was so excited to tell his story about the catch he made. In organized sports, since the parents are watching the game, there is often no reason for the kid to be excited to tell his story after the game. And unfortunately, we end up being the ones that talk about the game, so the story becomes ours and not theirs.
He dreamt he was a pro. He got to be AJ Green. I think all adults can remember playing outside with our friends and pretending to be someone else. I can remember at recess one of my friends would pretend he was Lawrence Taylor whenever we played football and if he made a “tackle” he would get in your face and yell “OOOOH YEEEEAH, LT BABY!” while flexing his 9-year-old muscles. In all his season of organized sports, I am yet to observe my son dreaming that he was one of his heroes. Perhaps this is because there is so much else going on in organized sports (coaches, refs, parents, rules, etc.) that kids don’t have a chance to dream while they play?
He was accountable to his “team”. He was upset about the thought of breaking his word to his friends. Nobody had to give him a cheesy coach quote on the importance of being a good teammate…he intuitively figured it out because he had the opportunity to build a true bond with his friends.
He loved the autonomy. When he thought I was there watching him, he got genuinely upset. Similar to how kids get upset if you stare over their shoulder the entire time there are watching YouTube on an iPad or playing a video game. They love what they can own.
Not to mention, how many catching, throwing, kicking, shooting, dribbling, defending, running, and jumping reps he must have got in those few days!
Also, I failed to mention at the beginning of the story, but there were only THREE kids playing together this entire time. They played all of these sports with only three kids and clearly without making teams of even numbers.
In less than one week, he had a way more meaningful and beneficial athletic experience than he would get in an entire year’s worth of organized sports. Like I said at the beginning, I still value organized sports, and my son will continue to play on teams. However, we all look around and talk about how sad it is that pick-up games are dying, yet we can be the generation to do something about it and give our kids the opportunities that we cherished when we were their age. I dare any adult to go watch the movie the Sandlot right now without wishing that was you out there playing. Pick-up games don’t need to be taught. They are free. They are CRUCIAL. Let them happen more.