With more organized youth activities and the rise of technology, unstructured free time has come more and more out of children’s lives. Many have lost the time to explore their environment and their authentic interests, or if they have time they use it to excessively play video games. They aren’t throwing bouncy balls off the side of their house, or exploring the woods, or playing hacky sack and ping pong with their neighbors. As a result, they’re losing some important physical developmental pieces.
What is “unstructured play?”
For the purposes of this article, unstructured play is any game that requires the physical use of your body, and without excessive adult interference. It is the child’s game. It’s the games they make up when they’re bored, and what they play with their friends when they come over. Unstructured play offers kids time to develop new skills that they often can’t get in a sports or strength and conditioning context. It teaches them new physical skills, how to be more reactive and creative athletes, and, most importantly, they’re fun.
Like any sport, each game requires a general set of skills. Think about the skills we work on in the gym, like running faster and jumping higher. Any game will give kids time to practice their general physical competency. It could a game like tips that requires them to jump every time they get the ball, or Spikeball which requires quick accelerations in every direction. But, each game also requires a unique set of skills. In basketball it’s shooting threes or dribbling. In hockey, it’s the stickhandling ability or an efficient skating stride. Every silly little game gives kids the chance to develop more and more skills that carry over into their actual sports. Sewer, for example, helps kids use their feet better. Spikeball is great for hand-eye coordination. Roof taps requires the ability to catch and throw effectively. We’re developing a lot of the same skills we do in sports, but in a different context. Through these games, the child will develop new skills that they don’t in their sports. An athlete who plays soccer in the fall, hockey in the winter, and lacrosse in the spring is never learning how to throw or catch. Something like wiffle ball would be a great game for this athlete. These games help athletes further enhance skills they already work on, and also learn new ones that support their overall physical competency.
Beyond the skill set, unstructured play helps athletes develop the ability to react quickly. Reactivity is the ability to adjust your movements or positioning quickly due to a sudden change in the game. For example, someone playing defense in football needs to be able to react instantly to attempted dekes and movements by the attacker in front of them. It’s not about speed or acceleration. It is the ability to react quickly to changes in the game. I believe the ability to react is the difference between players who are great in practice, and players who are great in games. In practice, coaches will often tell you where to go. In competition, you have to react to what’s happening around you. Come gametime, you can’t rely on the lines drawn on the practice board. In play, athletes will be able to get exponentially more reps that require a quick reaction than they would at their practice. Consider a Spikeball match with a neighbor. In this match alone their might be 40 points handed about, with an average of three volleys per person during each point. That’s 120 reps. Even in a sports practice with drills that teach reaction ability, getting anywhere near 120 reps is unlikely. And even if you do, it’s not in a quick ten minute game. The ability to react to your environment is not trained in sports practice the same way the specific and general sports skills are. With that in mind, one of the best ways to develop it is through unstructured play.
Unstructured play also encourages creativity unlike most organized settings. With the stakes low, and with no coaches or parents telling them how to play, they’re forced to come up with their own strategies. It allows athletes to explore their own learning processes through trial and error. If they try something and it doesn’t work, they can either keep practicing it until they can do it, or they learn to abandon it altogether. Think of skating on the backyard rink. This is place where some of the best hockey players honed their skill. They tried new moves, new routes to beat defensemen, and ultimately emerged with a skill set unlike any other player. Without a coach to tell them what not to do, they develop their own moves. I think of a roof taps game where you could practice a fake with the ball, or practice going behind your back. If you tried that in a basketball practice, your coach would likely yell at you if it didn’t work. This is the place to try things. When your creativity shows up years down the line in a big game, everybody will be wondering how and where you learned it.
Perhaps most important of all, is that these games are fun. I’ve never met an athlete who didn’t love Spikeball. When my hockey teammates and I get to the rink, we can’t wait to grab the soccer ball and start playing sewer. Athletes are competitors. If somebody challenges us to a game, we’re going to give all our energy and effort to crush them. You could be teaching the same skills elsewhere, but young athletes seem to always rise of up to the spirit of competition. And as soon as the game is done, they wish they could play for hours more. A best of three game of taps can quickly turn into a seven game series. Or a 3 inning wiffle ball game will go to the bottom of the 19th. Also, this will reinvigorate an athlete’s love for their real sports. If a soccer player has been playing sewer with her hockey teammates all winter, she’ll be so excited to show her soccer team the moves she learned. I remember when I played wall ball I would quickly start making my best Derek Jeter impressions, and how much it would make me wish I was on the diamond. Whereas sports games and practices can gradually lead to burnout over the years, unstructured play does the exact opposite.
How to incorporate more unstructured play:
Be bored. Wake up on a Sunday morning without any plans, and commit to not staring at screens for more than an hour. What are you going to do the rest of the day? Text your friends to meet up. If you’ve got a roof and a ball, you’ve got a roof taps court. Or maybe somebody can bring a Spikeball net. It’ll be more fun than anything you’d do inside.
When I was younger, anytime I was bored I would call my next-door neighbor Wyatt to play games outside. Roof taps and ping pong were staples, but we also made up games like dinosaur bowling and arena soccer. We were so competitive with it that we created The Battle of Tarbox Road. Basically, everytime we played a game, we played for a country on this map I had printed out. Big games were generally for bigger countries. When somebody won, we filled in that country on the map with the color of the winner. Some games were back and forth, while others one person dominated. Soccer, for example, Wyatt smoked me unless we were playing full contact. To date, The Battle of Tarbox Road rages on whenever Wyatt and I are both home.
Even when I couldn’t have a friend over, I stilled played games. The side of my house worked well for a wall ball wall. I had a whole collection of bouncy balls that I would throw against my house and then practice diving in one direction or another to catch. I literally did this for hours in the summers. I think it was why I was a good baseball fielder. But I only did it for fun. If you can put the Xbox away for a few minutes and try it, you’d realize how fun it is.
If you get to your sports practice early, use that time to play a game with your buddies. In the hockey world, just about every team in the NHL plays sewer before games. So throw the soccer ball in your hockey bag and start making it a pre-practice tradition. I put out the Spikeball net before our athletic performance classes, so when kids roll in, they can play a quick game. Some days if I’m not busy, I’ll teach the kids new games before class. If you’re a coach, throw the Spikeball net in the car and have the kids who are early to practice play. Encourage the fun.
Sports at the end of the day are just made up games. The true essence of sport is the spirit of competition, of trying to better and improve ourselves. Playing more games will develop new skills, improve athleticism, make more reactive athletes, and improve creatively. Most importantly, they’re fun. And isn’t that what sports are all about?