Play, the Great Leveler

kids rolling down hillRemember the carefree days of unencumbered play? When we gathered a group of friends, boys and girls, older and younger, and set out for the open field, or the hillside, or the climbing tree? There was not one right way to run or jump or roll or climb. We each just did it in our own way, together. And I can still smell the mowed grass and black dirt and feel the happy spin of my head when I tried to stand up after rolling, rolling, rolling down the hill.

Today’s kids don’t come with those memories. In fact, our young adults don’t even report to military service with those physical memories. Their “physical literacy” is lacking; they have never learned to read and feel their bodies in those basic motions. These days, they report to a field with a coach who issues a uniform and teaches them “skills.” Kids who are “coordinated” we call athletic. Those who are “uncoordinated” we call unathletic. We separate them into keep and toss. One stays, one goes, and neither one wins.

That’s was reiterated over and over this week at the Aspen Institute Project Play Summit titled, “Sport for All, Play for Life.” It was a room full of Who’s Who in sports and coaching who had come to consider 8 strategies that show promise to set children under 12 back on track to become become physically active through sports and to stay that way for life. Here are the 8:

  1. Ask Kids what they Want (youth sports is organized by adults)
  2. Re-introduce free play. (they have over-structured experiences)
  3. Encourage sport-sampling. (single sport and early specialization pressures)
  4. Revitalize in-town leagues. (rising costs and commitment issues)
  5. Think small. (need more, not bigger places to play)
  6. Design for development. (too much too soon burns out)
  7. Train all coaches. (well meaning but untrained volunteers need support)
  8. Emphasize prevention. (safety concerns among parents)

The irony was that the room held a great divide: those representing the “haves” and those representing the “have nots.”

The “have-kids”, that is those with resources, coaching and the ability to pay for instruction and travel, were suffering from injury and burnout. They competed and trained too much. The leagues they played in wanted to encourage their kids to compete less, to pull back, have fun and just play. Have more street soccer and pick up games; we need to teach the coaches how to facilitate activities (play) without “training” and “teaching” and “instructing.” Problem: parents are paying. They want to get their money’s worth.

The “have-not kids”, that is those without fields, leagues or coaching, just wanted places to play. They would be delighted with just a portion of what the “haves” have and an opportunity just to play. Problem: not enough to pay to get a place to play.

So, in order to have a healthy younger generation, the haves need just to play and the have nots want just to play…what a delightful image to level the playing field! Common denominator, PLAY! We need each other, to save us from ourselves! Somehow in our desire to win and compete and develop we have idolized selection and left so many behind. Diversity and inclusion have been left in the dust, and it’s killing our hearts and souls, not to mention, our kids.

Can we send ourselves all the way back to the beginning? Can we train ALL coaches? Can we support play for ALL kids? The benefit of diversity in people and activity is that its good you. Who in the world would ever recommend subsistence on a diet of only one food? only one motion? only one language, skin color, culture? Our children need us to insist on a varied, healthy diet. The nutrients in the other games transfer to the games we will play next. And who knows what creative new approach kids with a diversity of experience might apply?

Coaches out there, I am hearing it from the top. Let ’em give different sports a try each season, replacing the specialty, not layering on top. Instead of losing ground (which is our fear) it’ll open up new perspective and help them see things in a new way. It’ll decrease their risk of physical injury and burnout. That’ll mean they stay active. And that’s what we want for our kids, to learn to love using their bodies in fun and healthy ways. To respect them and treat them as the gift they are, for their whole lives.

By the way, once a kid, always a kid. To bring play back to our kids, we may need to rediscover it ourselves. Remember, it smelled like grass and dirt and had our heads spinning as we giggled all the way down the hill. It was fun and, not for a moment, did we feel guilty about taking time to do it. We were making memories that would last.

Plus, it’ll probably do wonders for our creativity at work, and may just make us the most sought after coach in the league. Of course, this is not a competition.

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