The Endangered Art of Pick Up Sports (and How to Keep Them from Becoming Extinct)
My dad, and most of his generation, grew up playing games with kids on his street. He wasn’t a part of a specific team, with designated practices and a coach, and they didn’t plan ahead of time what they wanted to play.
It was a group of neighborhood kids who just got together and played. They weren’t doing video games, they weren’t on their phones, and they were managing their own rules, structure, teams and everything, and having a blast doing it.
Kids these days are rarely seen doing the same thing. We have created a world where it is almost unheard of to play with neighborhood kids and any play dates have to be scheduled, they are not likely to spontaneously occur.
Part of this is due to the helicopter parenting affect. We are nervous about having our kids go out and play unsupervised, especially on the street, and away from a parent’s watchful eye. So, the kids have to wait until a time that a parent can be watching, and this obviously becomes a limiting factor.
In addition, even if parents were able to watch, the neighborhood kids aren’t around anyways. Why? Well, since there are apparently no kids around to play with, parents (and kids) have to go find the other kids to play with, and we turn to the only option we see- organized sports.
By putting my kid on a team, I guarantee that he will have other similarly aged children to play with. The more kids who play on teams, the less there are around for pick up sports, and the vicious cycle continues.
Don’t get me wrong, I love organized sports for my son, and there are a lot of benefits gained by playing in a sports league as a kid, such as improved physical, psychological and social well being, as well as the value of teamwork. I also like that my son has to learn to respect his coach, follow directions and learn both how to win and lose with sportsmanship. Organized sports aren’t going anywhere, and there are countless options for kids to join in these activities.
But there are a lot of benefits to “pick up games” that the kids of this generation are missing out of, and it is in danger of becoming just a relic of past generations, if we don’t take some steps to leave room for unorganized sports as well.
Why should kids play unorganized sports outside of their teams?
First, pick up games require kids to make their own decisions.
Plop a kid in a practice and they will have to make no conscious decisions of what they should do- they have a coach for that. Most practices are full of coaches telling the players exactly what they are doing, and for how long, with the possible exception of scrimmages. Even in a scrimmage, the coach determines the teams, and for how long they play.
But in a pick up game, the kids get to call the shots, and they have to make decisions as a group, which can be a surprisingly difficult task for some kids. After talking, they have to decide what game they are playing, how the rules are going to work- especially since there is a high probability of needing some kind of modification, and they frequently have to be creative in their structure. They have to be adaptable too, to kids having to go home, and how to adjust the game accordingly.
Research shows that the benefits of pick up games can continue throughout school even into college.
A study from the University of Colorado found that children who spent more time in less structured activities (such as pick-up games) develop better “self-directed executive function.” This skill largely centers around being able to set your own goals and take action on them. A 2014 University of Texas study found that college students who’d spent their childhoods splitting equal amounts of time between organized and unstructured sports were more creative than peers who devoted the majority of their play time to the former.
When you really think about it, there are precious little opportunities for elementary school kids to make their own decisions. Home has parents giving directions about bed times, chores and homework. School is dictated by the teachers calling the shots about what, how and when the kids have to complete assignments, and then they go to the organized sports and have a coach tell them what to do.
It is no wonder you hear stories about the newest generation coming to work needing more direction than previous generations.
That millennials want frequent communication from their bosses coincides with other recent workplace research, which shows that 20-somethings and early 30-somethings want feedback from supervisors more frequently than any other generation in the workforce.
We now have decades of kids growing up without being given the opportunity to govern themselves until they are suddenly thrust into the workforce. Without regular access to opportunities to work as a group and make decisions for themselves, they grow to rely on the leaders around them, just like they have had to do since they were little.
With more unstructured play, we could possibly help the kids who are young now grow confident enough to need less direction once they hit the workforce.
Also, there is less pressure to perform, and any pressure comes from within, not from external forces.
When kids play for others, like the proud parents watching in the bleachers, there is pressure put on them to perform. I know I am guilty of telling my son what I thought was good or bad about his performance for the day.
When they are scoring and doing well, kids like having parents watching them, but if they know they are struggling, it definitely takes away from the enjoyment that they might have once had with the game.
Some parents even go so far as to bribe kids to perform in sports, stripping away even more intrinsic (self) motivation.
I’ll confess, I tried this once. I was trying to push my son to perform at his best in his hockey game, and he wasn’t scoring as many goals as I felt he was capable of, so I told him he could have some candy after the game if he could score 3 goals. It backfired on me when his coach asked him to play defense, and his great defense kept him away from even getting close to the opposing net. After the game, he asked me if he could still have the prize for his defense, and I did say yes, as he had played well- but I learned to never put any additional pressure from me in his future games, but to allow him to play his personal best.
But living in a sports world, I know I am not the only parent guilty of putting immense pressure on their child’s success in the game. Some of it comes from a good place, because we know that they will be happier if they score, if their team wins, if they get the big trophy, etc. Yet, if we are honest, a lot is that we, as parents, feel good having the kid who scores, wins or gets the trophy.
One article put the expectations that parents put on kids in a really powerful way:
The weight of expectations is a crushing burden on the shoulders of young athletes. Imagine your children having to put on a 50-pound weight vest when they enter the field of play and you’ll get a sense of what they feel and how it will make them perform.
It went on to say that many kids stop playing sports because they are too stressful, which is the opposite of what we want when we are encouraging a healthy lifestyle.
If kids are playing without adults around, there is no pressure to perform coming from anything besides their own desire to succeed. They score because they want their team to win, not so that mom or dad would be proud of them. The less pressure, in turn, can make the game more fun for the kids playing.
Most importantly, from a long term perspective, they learn how to solve their own disagreements, and build social skills for the future.
I watch a group of kids playing handball at lunch as part of my current position, and there are frequently disagreements about if a ball was in or out. Most of the time, they don’t need me to intervene, because they know how to be their own referees.
Making the tough calls, trying to play fair, and coming up with strategies to keep the game going even with disagreements gives kids priceless skills that they can later use in the job force. In a pick up game, or out at recess, kids understand that if everyone quits, there is no more game, because no one is forcing them to play.
It helps create a culture in which everyone wants to play fair, and stay calm, because that is how they can continue to play.
If it gets too heated by the handball court, many times students will tell the arguing kids to just do a redo- deciding that it would be better to play through the round again rather than have recess be wasted on the fight. Real, organized sports can’t allow that, and the parents, coaches and referees make the calls, but it doesn’t help the kids learn how to solve problems and play fair.
According to a paper written in 2017,
In addition to this, during free play youth develop their abilities to control their own cognitive and emotional processes, or to “self-regulate” (83). Self-regulation is an important part of child development and can serve as a predictor of a child’s academic achievement and their emotional well-being
The self regulating skill is an important skill as well. With no parents to talk to the coaches on their behalf, they know that there is no one to complain to, and they don’t want to be left out of the fun.
So even if a child felt that a group decision was unfair, they are less likely to get upset, because there is no one to run to, no one to tell their sob story to, and no one who will rescue them from these feelings of disappointment- which is what most failures in a game really come down to.
Instead, they learn to manage the feelings, and know that maybe next time with their friends, they will succeed, and move on, completely without the help of an adult “hero” rescuing them.
So with all of these benefits how do we make time and space for these unstructured sports?
How can we bring back something from another age? You can’t track down every kid on your block and force them to read this article (well you could, but I don’t recommend it).
There are three main areas that I feel like we can do our best to encourage and nurture these unstructured, un-organized, kid directed play times.
The first way we can fight for the underlying principles of “pick up games” is by protecting and maybe even extending recess times for our children.
It is true that in this overscheduled culture, it can be difficult to get a group of kids together to decide what they want to play, and give them room to make decisions.
But every day, there is already a naturally occurring time that brings many kids together. School playgrounds are one environment that pick up games still exist today.
Yet their outdoor play time is being threatened by schools pressured to show performance in testing.
The numbers are scary. There was a survey done in 2007, looking at how schools allocated their time.
The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time (from 2001 numbers). According to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report, just 16% of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess.
A full 84% of our states could, at this moment, decide to cut recess altogether, and it wouldn’t be against the law.
It is up to us as parents to fight for our children’s right to play during their school day.
Recess studies are plentiful, and the benefits are great, lining up with the previously mentioned research on self directed sports.
A 2009 study found that 8- and 9-year-old children who had at least one daily recess period of more than 15 minutes had better classroom behavior
A 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found positive associations between recess and academic performance. “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” the report said.
Another study, from 2016, found that young boys who spent more time sitting and less time playing didn’t progress as quickly in reading and math.
When the AAP released its statement on the subject through the journal Pediatrics in 2013, Dr. Murray concluded that children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges.
Pay attention to the laws and bills being passed in your state. There might already be a fight to guarantee unstructured play time (different than P.E.) and you can be a part of it. If you hear that your school is cutting recess, speak up, get other parents involved, push for the right for your child to play, learn and make their own decisions, for the sake of their future.
On a smaller scale, you can make a point to take your child to where there is more potential for a pick up game.
Let’s be real. Your front yard is unlikely to suddenly become the start of a pick up game revolution, where all of the other children on the street come out of the woodwork and demand the right to play a game on the street with the neighborhood kids.
That isn’t going to happen. Could be convenient, but isn’t a realistic solution.
Instead, we need to take our children to places where a pick up game could happen.
In our case, we know of an outdoor roller rink, that is attached to a park, and we occasionally take our son there for some practice. There are times that it is just him practicing his skating with his dad, but other times there can be another kid or two show up.
As they share the rink, sometimes it turns into a pick up game, just for fun, no pressure.
If your kid is into basketball, you need to find a court, or a YMCA and have them go with a ball in hand. They will either get time to practice on their own, or they might just get to experience a pick up game with the people there.
This happened to my husband recently. He was going to play with some friends at work, and when they got to the court they had decided on, there were already some young guys there. They asked my husband and his friends if they wanted to play against them, and everyone agreed. Proving again, that pick up games aren’t extinct, especially if you are willing to go to where one is more likely to occur.
Related is planning a play date with a friend who also likes the same sport, and planning to meet at the rink, court or field etc. At minimum, the two friends can try to do an unstructured game, but there is always the chance that more kids will join this base group if they are playing nearby and see someone playing, with the right equipment, without an adult giving orders.
The third option is to put them in an organized sport.
I know. This sounds like giving up. This sounds like admitting defeat, and calling all pick up games extinct and without hope of ever recovering.
But hear me out, because I haven’t changed my main point.
Many times, before or after a game, the kids have a chance to play. For hockey, for example, the rink is open before the game or practice begins. There are a bunch of pucks out, and the kids just goof around, skating, stealing pucks from each other, sometimes having impromptu races, etc.
Having him in the sport gives him the opportunity and the kids to play with, that might not have been possible without having him on the team. Plus, circling back to my last point, this has been how we have met some kids that we then invited to play at the rink with us in the unstructured play date. See how that works?
Many sports are trying to allow for more time for the kids to play outside of the pressure, by building in time before or after games to have unstructured fun, or by incorporating scrimmages into the practice. A scrimmage, to me, is somewhere in between a pick up game and the pressure filled real game, but it is better than nothing.
Plus, by playing on a organized team, they are learning the basics of the game, which they can take back to recess, and, for example, start a pick up game of soccer at their school.
One way or another, it is crucial that kids these days get out of the house, and join with other kids to play in a world not dictated by the rules of the software or a coach.