Go Play!
 
(During a recent graduate class at St. Bonaventure, a fellow elementary guidance counselor, Mr. Bruce Mitchell of Armor Elementary, spoke to us on a number of topics.  He encouraged us to explore his webiste and use what we felt would be useful to us.  I thought this article was a great way of explaining what has happened to our youth's lack of interest in physical activities.  As a goal set forth by the ECS stratetic planning committee, hopefully this will help get more of our students interested and involved in physical activities. DJL)
 
On some recent wanderings around the Island, I was struck by how few kids (or anyone else for that matter) were “just” playing. Sure, there are some out there hitting balls at the courts. Every now and then, one sees a group of ultimate Frisbee players, and a handful of the usual kids grinding on their skateboards. But these are exceptions and not the rule. What has happened?
 
Unfortunately, childhood is not as safe as in past. Even in our relatively protected environment, fewer parents are willing to let their kids go off by themselves. It is not news that children have become progressively more sedentary. My Space and video games have begun to replace physical activity as the vehicle for social interaction. At the same time, our culture has developed an obsession with organized sports at all levels and a mania for joyless fitness.
 
It wasn’t all that long ago that a child would learn a few basics, usually from a parent, like hitting and catching or kicking a ball. Then he or she went off with their friends for a pickup game. Rules were few, often made up on the spur of the moment, and the score didn’t matter. Some of the kids also played on a formal team and some didn’t, but EVERYONE “just” played.
 
Now, if a child is to swing a bat or strike a soccer ball, it has to be in a league, usually with rules, often uniforms, schedules, and officials. Informal instruction has given way to coaching, training, and camps for even the youngest participants. This may all begin with a wide variety of kids with differing abilities, but things quickly are sorted out. The message has become: you can play only on a team and only if you’re good enough. Often there is no longer a middle ground. There emerges a divide between those on teams and those who do nothing at all. The trend is for those not playing to withdraw, often permanently, from vigorous activity. It is also not rare for those who continued on in organized sports to lose the joy and spontaneity that came with the games of early childhood. So, by the time they are adults, sports means watching not doing.
 
Don’t get me wrong, I love to both teach and watch young athletes. The value of structured physical activity in the development of the child is without question. The higher the level, the more a player’s satisfaction is derived from the quality of their performance, and, yes, winning. But at the end of the day, if there is no fun or joy, the achievement is an empty one. It is a constant coaching challenge not to forget this. Practice must always be intense and disciplined, but there must always be time made not for one more drill but for free play. Kids need that freedom. The bonus is that in that unregulated environment that they are matching their training with the personal creativity necessary to effectively develop their game.
 
The message is, as in all things in life, there must be balance. Encourage your children to participate in organized sports but let them know that is more than OK to “just” play as well. Watch them play and play with them. Let them go play with their friends and….. you go play too!
 
Mark Fishaut, M.D. (with permission)
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