Teaching Kids (and Youth) to Play

by: Andrew Stewart                                                                                                   Published 08/08/13

street_hockey_by_a_puffsSince I have already touched on the amount of physical activity experts have recommended for kids and the youth it only makes sense in this following post we explore ways of encouraging this behavior. Unfortunately, finding resources on this subject are difficult; verifying their credibility even more so. As a result the majority of this post will focus on theories which may or may not apply in all cases.

As children are developing they are constant learning. While this fact may not come as much of a surprise, one aspect of this that isn’t often considered is the fact this also applies to the way kids play. The act of playing is a complex physical and social action, when we are young the activities we are exposed to by our parents shape the way we engage in physical activity and how we incorporate it into our lives.

In our current society it appears that a large amount of emphasis is put on “organized sport” as a way of getting, and keeping kids active. In general, organized sports programs are highly specialized and regulated. Adults set practice times, buy the necessary equipment, pay fees, and enforce the rules.

play_by_iosa-d4d4uerThere is nothing directly wrong with organized sport but in many circumstances it limits input from the child. We must remember that children do things that are presently fun, training specifically for future athletic endeavors is often the opposite. In fact, a large proportion of successful professional athletes don’t choose to specialize in a sport at a young age ( Baker 2003).

How do we give children more freedom while keeping them active? We must consider the lost art of the “pick up” game. In an article by Peter Gray (a professor at Boston College) it is proposed there are a few key elements present in informal sports that children need to be exposed to.

Here they are:

“There is no real difference between your team and the opposing team”

“To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy, including the players on the other team”

“Rules are modifiable and are generated by the players themselves”

“Conflicts are settled by argument, negotiation, and compromise”

“Playing well and having fun really ARE more important than winning”

–        Peter Gray 2009

While Dr. Gray does appear to be using the article I used to promote his book, after considering the points he raises it does appear that each of these elements have the potential to increase the levels of fun inherent in sport. They also create the potential for a child/youth to take ownership of the activity.

Multiple studies have proven that children engage in more physical activity if they feel that they have personal control over it (Welk 1999).

In conclusion I would like to say that while the article I have ended up writing is far different than the one I set out to write I think the topic of informal play/ physical activity is important to consider. To wrap up this post I just want to emphasize that children aren’t born knowing how to organize leisure activities with their friends. Initially it is something they will need help doing it but at some point, for kids to get the full effect the training wheels need to come off.


Baker, J. (2003). Early Specialization in Youth Sport: a requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, 14(1), 85-94.

Gray, P. (2009). The Roles of Play and Curiosity as Foundations for Learning.  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200911/some-lessons-taught-informal-sports-not-formal-sports

Welk, G. J. (1999). The Youth Physical Activity Promotion Model: A Conceptual Bridge Between Theory and Practice. Quest, 51(1), 5-23. doi: 10.1080/00336297.1999.10484297

Image: “Play” by Iosa (©2011-2013)

Image: “Street Hockey” by a-puffs (©2008-2013)


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