Just Let Them Play
By Kathy Lynn
"Mom! I'm going to the park with Jason!"
"Okay dear. Dinner is at six."
David and Jason head off to the park where they meet up with six other kids and soon they are having a great time kicking a soccer ball around the field.
Sounds surreal, doesn't it?
A few weeks ago I learned about a sports program in southwestern Ontario designed to give kids the athletic edge. The program uses the latest in training technology including a laser timer, motion-analysis software and Olympic weightlifting platforms. What a fabulous use of technology for our young potential elite athletes.
But wait, it's not for the elite athletes. It's for all kids. It is tutoring our children on how to play. And it's costly. For children over 11 it runs about $21 per hour, a little less for the 8 to 11 year old kids.
Elite, Olympic or professional athlete level kids are few and far between and they need all the coaching they can get. Olympic skater Karen Magnusson once told me that the truly elite athletes don't need to be pushed. They have a fire in their bellies that just won't be appeased unless they get to try as hard as they can for perfection.
But our regular kids, the majority of our children, simply need to go to the park with other kids and play.
Often, when we talk about kids becoming more active we look to organized sports. Problem is that organized, team sports should be a small part of a growing child's experience. Team sports are great. They teach skills specific to the sport, how to follow orders, how to work as part of a group, how to take turns and how to win or lose as a team. They develop values of loyalty and cooperation as well as team building.
But, kids really need daily exercise. They need a variety of physical experiences and they need to get involved in these kinds of activities without the structure of a class. First, most kids should physically get themselves to school. If all kids walked or took the city bus to school, they would have the company of other kids. Most of us have heard of a walking school bus. An adult starts at the beginning of a pre-determined route picking up kids and she goes along. That's a good place to start, but it should be seen as a training tool. Once kids know how to walk safely between home and school they need to do it on their own.
The walk to school is a time for them to bond with their peers. It's a time to experience the thrill of independence found in being able to navigate the route from home to school. And it's a time to look around and discover their neighbourhood. None of this happens when there is an adult in charge.
During school hours they need exercise. Let's re-visit daily physical education for students at all levels. It won't diminish their academic career; in fact kids who participate in physical education do at least as well if not better than the kids who focus totally on academics. And they learn that being physically active is an important part of being healthy.
After school and on weekends they need a whole range of activities. Supervised and structured activities are not enough. Participating in a team sport is an important part of child development, but free, unstructured play is equally important.
According to early childhood educators at Lethbridge Community College the key elements of play are that it is voluntary, intrinsically motivated and is freely chosen. The child controls the activities. It is pleasurable, spontaneous and enjoyable. In other words free play. And that's exactly what happens every day in our back yards and at the park. It allows the child to test her abilities, to flex her muscles and be creative.
Kids are couch potatoes because we aren't opening our doors and letting them outside. Of course, we need to street-proof our kids but that's always been the case. It was true in the 50s when I was running free with my friends and it's true today.
If we get all our children outdoors playing, then they will be in a group and we will see a healthier, happier group of children. And what's wrong with that.