Free play is important in motivating lifelong sports participation. Don’t over-structure every play experience; instead let kids play on their own terms.
Challenge //   Over-structured experiences
Reintroduce free play.
Michael Jordan had a “love of the game” clause inserted into his NBA contract that allowed him to play basketball whenever and wherever he wanted. Why? He understood the value of pickup play. He grew up in an era when so much of a child’s activity in sports was in settings comprised of not much more than a space, some friends, and a ball. For generations of Americans, casual play—from the sandlot to the recreation center—was a foundational experience, a kid-directed zone that rewarded expression, fostered social skills, and demanded some degree of inclusion. It also delivered hours of physical activity, without that ever being the goal.
The 1970s are long gone. Today, many parents are reluctant to let children ride bikes across town to play games with friends. Fear of child abductions, while extremely rare, is a psychological barrier, and crime and traffic concerns are real issues in some neighborhoods. Families are smaller, so there are often fewer siblings to play with at home. But experts recognize the need to reintroduce free play where possible, given the science. “To promote lifelong, intrinsically motivated sport participation, it is imperative to build a foundation during childhood,” sports psychologist Jean Coté writes. “Inclusion of high amounts of deliberate play activities early in development provides that motivational foundation.”
LET KIDS PLAY ON THEIR OWN TERMS, AND THEY WILL
One way to do this is within organized sport itself. In 2006, the U.S. Soccer Federation released a paradigm-shifting document, Best Practices for Coaching in the United States, urging coaches to find a place for loosely structured play within society’s need for adult oversight. “Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player’s development by organizing less, saying less, and allowing the players to do more.” It advised, “Be comfortable organizing a session that looks like pickup soccer.” The Federation wanted not just more players, but more creative players, like those emerging from the street soccer cultures of South America.
Unstructured play in childhood is also associated with higher levels of academic creativity among college students, according to a 2014 University of Texas study. The ideal mix was a split between organized and free play.(14) Children who spend more time in less structured activities in general are better able to set their own goals and take action on them, researchers at the University of Colorado found.(15) Those studies came on the heels of another one showing informal play is protective against injury in competitive young athletes.
The case is lining up for adults to get out of the way more often—and let the game, and child peers, be the teacher.
Four Social Barriers To Informal Play
As recognized by the american academy of pediatrics
PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT: Leaders explore how to Reintroduce Free Play
“I would take a crayon and draw a line on the wall, then take my dad’s tube socks and roll them up, and start shooting on the wall. I’d be dunking on the wall. And my mom would see it and absolutely just lose her mind. This is the type of things kids used to do, or at least I used to do, anyway.”
Kobe Bryant, 16-time NBA All-Star
While many community soccer programs ignore U.S. Soccer’s best practices document—or don’t even know it exists—the Portland City United Soccer Club is on board. Once a week, the organization rents a small indoor court designed for futsal, a fast-paced game popularized in Brazil, and invites kids to play for free. The director restricts parents to the restaurant and elevated viewing area, explaining: “We are trying to set up an avenue for the kids to play some street soccer where they can explore the game and play on their terms.”