I recently came across an article that drew reference to a study that had been carried out on the amount of time that children spend playing outside compared to their parents and previous generations. The research found that the parents, as children during the 1970’s and 1980’s were spending no fewer than two hours outside per weekday and no less than nine hours at the weekends regardless of the weather. Whereas today, children are spending on average an hour a day on a weekday and fewer than five hours a day at weekends.
Although this is relevant to children of all ages, children aged between 5 – 12 years are going through some of their most critical stages of development, which are influenced by the environments and activities they are exposed to. Therefore, how are allowing children to spend these critical periods of development in front of a screen as oppose to playing outside where they will be developing their physical, cognitive and social skills. Which will enable to not only become better athletes, but will enable them to carry out every day activities more effectively. When children play they learn to interact, observe movements, be creative, mimic actions, develop motor patterns and improve visual senses to mention just a few, and this is all part of their development. If, however, they spend most of their time sitting down, in front of a 2 dimensional screen then they won’t get the chance to develop the above and therefore are we really providing them with the start they require?
As children develop it is important that they learn to interact and play with friends, within various environments. I want to put forward a case that I believe has helped players develop from the previous generations, the generations where children spent a lot more time outside playing with friends, which gave them the opportunity to develop the required skills to play such sports as football. When children play football or any sport with their friends, they are free to try and express themselves. They are given the platform to implement new skills, work things out, be independent without a coach instructing and placing fear in a player. This environment provides them with the opportunity to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes and willing to fall down, pick themselves up and try again. They will play with friends of all ages, sizes and numbers on a variety of different sized pitches on various surfaces using a range of size balls. All in which will provide them the experiences they require to improve their overall development as a player. They will learn from others, inadvertently coach each others by observing, mimicking, encourage each other to try a new skill. They will have the chance to pretend for that moment to be their favourite athlete, carry themselves in the way that their idol plays, try skills without worrying about being shouted at, celebrate the way their hero does when they score a goal. Within all of this and for me, which is the most important thing, they will have fun, enjoy, practice more, work harder and learn. Therefore, playing with friends is arguable one of the most important, yet withdrawn activities that a successful player should have as part of their program.
From my own childhood I can recall a typical day when at school: I would be getting into school early, first thing in the morning meeting friends to play football, which had been pre-arranged the day before. We would meet in the playground, it would often be with a tennis ball with ‘jumpers for goal posts’ (bags in our case), and this would range anything from 1 v 1 to 5 v 5 or even a 1 v 2 depending on numbers. This would carry on up until the bell rang for the start of school, therefore it was important to get in real early so the game would be longer. Summer months were great because of the light mornings and generally good weather. It was made a little more difficult during the winter with dark, rainy, cold days, but that never stopped us. In those days we had a morning break between classes that lasted 20mins, there was no surprise that this involved football, it would usually be the game continuing from before school and that would carry on throughout the week. Then at lunchtime it was the big game, the game we had planned for, and from what I recall at Junior school (7-11yrs) we were playing international games, Northern Ireland v France. We had even made up programs for the fixture, time of kick off, current league standing and the name of each player we individually would be taking the role of. It would often only involve a small number of players, maybe a 3 v 2 or 3 v 3. I always preferred being on the 2 against 3 because of the challenge. I never enjoyed dominating games, I liked the drama and challenge of being an underdog and having to work hard to win, it felt more of an achievement. There was quite the build up to the game, especially in the mornings, planning during class, discussions about where the game would take place and about getting out as soon as the bell went, often avoiding lunch to ensure we had more time to play. In the afternoon we would have PE, which involved a range of sporting activities that included cricket, rounder’ and athletics. I used to enjoy playing any sports, as long as I was outside. Then in the afternoon we had another 15min break, that would normally involve typical playground games and yes, the lads played hopscotch as well. After school we often played in the playground waiting for parents, or in the park, as parents would walk groups of children home. which we would negotiate with them by suggesting they could talk and have a good catch up. Although, I know my mother did not need an invitation as she always enjoyed chatting with her friends. ‘Another 5 minutes’, which always led to an hour, which was great because it meant I could with my friends. On some days we had either school football training or a game. Other days we would schedule to go round to a friends house, for tea, which usually involved playing football or others sports in the garden.
Therefore I ask this question, are we giving our children the chance, the best possible opportunities to become not only a creative footballer and athlete, but also a creative person? By providing them with opportunities to ‘play’ and to be free in an environment, which is led by them and not by coaches. The environment, that surrounds us by positive peers that can influence, help educate and shape the person we become. If you have ever read the book ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed he draws reference to the environment and situations that led him to the career he had in table tennis. We need to do more as parents, educators and coaches to provide our children to best chances to develop some of the required skills that help them perform in the sporting arena and perform in life.
‘I am always ready to learn but I don’t always like being taught’ Winston Churchill