Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Game On: The Decline of Backyard Play

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I found this post from  Peter G. Stromberg @ Psychology Today. It really got me thinking about kids and the pressure that we may put on them as parents…What do you think?

A few weeks ago I flew to Denver with my younger daughter so that she could participate in a volleyball tournament; she has been travelling to tournaments for the last two years but this is the first time we had to fly. My daughter is 11 years old.

Shouldn’t my daughter be riding her bike around the neighborhood and jumping rope with her friends? Why is she, at age 11, playing on a team coached by a former Olympic-level athlete and competing against nationally-ranked teams based thousands of miles from our home? There is research to suggest that unstructured play and basic movement activities (running, jumping, balancing) are more beneficial for children of her age than specialized training in one particular sport. Why in the world should an 11 year old child be in year-round volleyball training? Well, let me explain.

I would guess that many readers who are older than 30 will share my own experience: at my daughter’s age and into my early teens, I spent every possible minute getting into pick-up games of basketball and football with my friends or just roaming around outside. This approach didn’t produce a skilled athlete, but it sure was fun (and cheap). Today, in most areas of the country, such activities are simply less available. One reason my daughter doesn’t head down to the park to play with her friends is that they aren’t there-they are at soccer practice, or piano lessons, or having pre-arranged play dates.

There has been a recent and enormous shift in the way children play in our society, away from unstructured outside play and towards organized competition under adult supervision. Why? One reason that will come quickly to mind is stranger danger. Many parents (including me, by the way) now believe it is unsafe for children-perhaps particularly girls-to be outside without adult supervision. Although neighborhoods vary, statistics that I have seen on this issue do not support the belief that in general accidents or attacks on children are more frequent now than, say, 30 years ago. It seems more likely that what has changed is extensive news coverage of issues such as attacks on children, which often fosters the belief that such events are frequent.

In short, actual danger from strangers is probably not the real reason for the decline in outside play. Well, how about this? Public funding for playgrounds, parks, and recreation centers has been declining since the 1980s. There aren’t as many places to go for public play anymore, and the ones that persist are likely not as well-maintained.

That’s relevant, but it still isn’t really at the heart of why my daughter plays highly competitive volleyball at such a young age. The fact is that if she doesn’t play now and decides to take up the sport at 14 or 15, the train will have left the station. Unless a child has extraordinary athletic gifts, she will be so far behind by that age that she will not be able to find a place on a team. It isn’t only that opportunities for unstructured public play have declined, it’s that opportunities for highly competitive play have expanded to such an extent that in some sports that is all that exists. There are simply no possibilities in my part of the country for recreational volleyball for children 10-18. And the situation is similar for many other sports as well: our focus on producing highly competitive teams with highly skilled participants leads to a lack of focus on producing opportunities for children who simply want to play a sport casually.

This, I think, gets us close to probably the most important reason that highly competitive sport for the few has begun to replace recreational sport for the many among children today. We as a society don’t care about recreational sport for the many. The logic of entertainment has come to control youth sports. Parents, kids, and the society as a whole are excited by the possibility of championships, cheering spectators, and (for the really elite) media coverage. And we aren’t really excited by our children playing disorganized touch football until they have to come in for dinner. What’s the point of that? Nobody is watching.

This isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the way our society works. I really wish my kids could play pick up games and intramurals the way their not-so-athletically-talented dad did. But the intramurals and pick up games are far fewer now. Strangely enough, childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed as they have faded. Or maybe that’s not strange at all.

This post reflects on issues I have been thinking about for years, but it is also heavily influenced by a recent book called Game On by ESPN writer Tom Farrey. To learn more about play in general, visit my website

from  Peter G. Stromberg @ Psychology Today


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March 25, 2010 - Posted by | Adolescence, Child Behavior, Education, Exercise, Health Psychology, Parenting, Resilience, Social Psychology | , , , , , , , , ,

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