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Bringing Back Free Play In Youth Sports

It used to be normal to see kids playing baseball games in their backyard, kickball in the streets, and basketball at the neighborhood playground.

It’s a concept commonly referred to as “free play,” which USA Baseball defines as “developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.”

For years, kids played games that were mostly unsupervised by adults, and the rules were determined by the kids themselves. Parents were happy to let their children play outside the home for hours, as long as they came back in time for supper.

That philosophy has steadily declined. Many parents are afraid to allow their child to roam freely around the neighborhood now. Coaches believe kids need more structure for their growth and development, which has radically changing the youth sports landscape. More games, tournaments and practices create a culture where kids either have no desire to play on their own, or they simply don’t have the time.

Dan Keller, who has coached youth sports for over 16 years, believes playing is the goal of all sports, across all fronts.

“We want to provide the athlete freedom to play — to remove thought, fear, conscious worry, etc.,” Keller told theSeason. “(Coaches should) allow them to play, compete and experience all the emotions that come with (it).”

Keller, CEO of the free online resource Dugoutcaptain.com, also conducts summer youth camps in Southern California. When he first began running the camps, games were only played on certain days, with a highly disciplined routine. He quickly discovered the downside of too much structure and not enough freedom.

“The kids learned a lot,” Keller said. “However, I believe we killed some of the fun by controlling the games so much.”

This summer, Keller changed his approach. Campers played games every day. Yes, there was instruction, but it occurred during the games. Coaches were positioned in the middle of the diamond to ensure safety, but the kids were given more freedom to make mistakes, take an extra base and just play for the sheer enjoyment of the game.

Free play encourages independence, imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills, according to Kenneth R. Ginsburg, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“Kids deal with their anxiety and fears through free play,” Dr. Ginsburg told Scholastic.com. “It’s their natural means of building resiliency. It shouldn’t be another thing to add to your to-do list and feel guilty about.”

Even with the problems of limited practice time and the pressure to win, coaches can still find creative ways to give kids the flexibility to play.

Mike Randazzo, a Little League coach in Fairfield, Connecticut, says keeping kids loose will keep them fresh. One of his favorite drills is to position a coach on each side of the plate with a fungo bat, whacking balls as high into the air as they can to a group of defensive players. Kids they try and track the ball while practicing communication since someone on the field will need to take charge and make the play.

“We could kill half an hour and the kids wouldn’t even know, and they’re learning the whole time,” Randazzo told Fatherly.com, a digital media brand for dads.

At his camps, Keller sets up a miniature diamond using throw bases, a couple of wiffle balls and a bat. Each camper is sent to the play area as they arrive. This allows kids to establish their own games and rules. He also uses a fun drill called Wiffle Cricket as an early activity. Hitters try to tally as many points and touch as many bases as they can before the ball is returned to the coach.

Free play may never entirely return to its roots. But coaches like Keller have discovered it does have its place in organized competition.

“It takes discipline to stay out of the way,” Keller said. “But isn’t that Sociology 101? Let the kids figure it out. They’ll come to you if they need a moderator.”

From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr.

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Inside Youth Sports, Youth sports, coaches, Coaches and Parents, sport parents