The Benefits of Free Play for Kids

With organized sports-related injuries on the rise, children may be better off just playing outside on their own

Credit: Mandajuice

Dr. Hister believes there are terrific benefits — in weight control, social skills, self-confidence and especially risk taking — from participating in unorganized sports

Organized sports are all the rage, but kids might benefit more from free play

A study about kids’ injuries presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in Chicago provided us with the proverbial good news/bad news dichotomy.

Decrease in Musculoskeletal Injuries

The good news is that according to this very large nation-wide American survey, overall, musculoskeletal injuries (that is, injuries to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, bursas, bones, etc.) from sports and recreation activities in kids aged five to 14 have dropped about 12 per cent over the last decade (and there’s no reason to believe, of course, that it’s any different in Canada).

So where could any bad news be hidden in that welcome statistic? Simple: It’s how this drop in injuries actually breaks down.

Increase in Sports-related Injuries

Whereas reported injuries declined about 10 to 30 per cent in six of the eight categories for which the US Centers for Disease Control keep statistics — namely in injuries occurring from bicycling, roller sports (such as roller skating and skate-boarding), trampolines and baseball and softball, as well as injuries from the use of playground equipment such as monkey bars, swings and slides, the percentage of injuries in young kids occurring in football rose by over 22 per cent and soccer injuries increased by over 10 per cent.

Why the difference? According to the study’s lead author, this trend likely reflects “the changing pattern of childhood activities as organized sports are encouraged, often at the cost of free play.”

Benefits of Free Play

In other words, as opposed to my day when my parents took care of me by telling me — even forcing me on some of those bitterly cold Montreal evenings — to go outside and play and not come home till my mom’s shrill cry told me that I’d “get it” if I didn’t come in right away, in this much changed world, the increasing trend is for harried parents to enrol their kids in organized sports rather than to send the kids outside to play on their own in the park for a few hours. (Modern parents also, of course, have safety concerns that were not nearly as prevalent even three decades ago.)

And the reason I think that’s bad news is because I believe there are terrific benefits — in weight control, social skills, self-confidence and especially risk taking, to name just a few — from participating in unorganized sports such as going to the park, playing a game of pick-up ball hockey on the street, that kids just don’t get as easily from organized sports.

I’m not pining for the old days (well, just a bit) but I do think kids are losing out on a lot of potential benefits when they are not allowed to just play on their own every day.

Dr. Art Hister is a medical writer and health analyst for Global TV.

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.