For all those parents who are worried that from the time their children are walking, they need to sign them up for sport—take heart. I have long promoted the importance of unstructured play for children, particularly young children. More about this can be explored in my Best selling book, Child's Play published by Random House. My kids have done different kinds of organized sports since they were about eight, but more of their time has been consumed by free play. You know the kind of play that happens in a back yard with a Frisbee or a soccer ball. My son used to spend an hour each evening simply hitting the hockey ball into the driveway net. My daughter loved swinging on the rope swing in our backyard. Things got particularly interesting when they combined bike riding with rope swinging but that is the stuff of another blog. Many times our yard looked like a garage sale of sports equipment including pogo sticks, crochet mallets, orange safety cones to mark off an obstacle course, and lots and lots of sidewalk chalk. While many of my friend’s athletic kids got into sports more heavily, I have intentionally moderated my kids frequency of practices and competitions. This has been particularly hard in Synchro where the going philosophy seems to be the more the better. I have to admit, whilst I stuck to my beliefs around the importance of unstructured play, I have occasionally wondered if my kids would actually excel at sport one day. This was particularly true as they got a little older and the kids that had started Synchro or soccer more seriously began to pass them by.
I assuaged my guilt by reminding myself, that even if my kids didn’t actually start to excel in sport, they were certainly having a lot of fun, staying healthy and benefiting from the social aspects of free play. This month my son turns fifteen and my daughter is twelve. My step kids are fourteen and sixteen. Our trampoline is still well used, and we have added a badminton net, a ping pong table and a makeshift gym in the garage. All of our kids are active, all of them healthy and they each have a distinct love of movement. We ski together, hike together, play killer games of badminton and often just play a game of hide and go seek, or tag with the family dogs. Even in the teenage years, movement and play are ways that we bond as a family and enjoy a little silliness. Last night my 75 year old dad killed my son in a game of badminton! I have no idea whether my kids will actually be any good at sport, but they are starting to catch up to their early starting peers. In fact, many of the kids that were heavy into Synchro at age six have dropped out, most of the “gold” soccer players have moved onto other things, and my kids are just getting started. Maybe I will have waited too long for the more intense training needed to perform at the high level at sport, but something tells me not. My kids have started out with a fantastic base of fitness from play and they are just now getting a little more focused on the stresses and rewards of higher level sport and competition. If you have small children and are resisting the pull to greater structure I hope my story gives you the encouragement to stay your course. Kids deserve to be kids, and enjoy the fabulous benefits of play, family connection and community that unstructured play brings them. Keep them healthy and active and the rest will take care of itself.