To Explore or to Compete: How Free Play and Organized Sport Influence Childhood Development

Sedona Smith, Phoenix Staff Writer

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast about “Free-Range Parenting.” One of the podcasters off-tracked to the topic of youth travel sports, and I was absolutely entranced by what he said. He pointed out that in the early 19th Century kids hardly had a childhood; as soon as they were able to use their hands efficiently, they were put to work for the benefit of the family. How barbaric, right?  

How is it then, the podcaster pointed out, that the pendulum has begun to swing back around? How have we once again begun to de-emphasize the importance of childhood? Why have we put our children back to work? As he pointed out, children as young as six or seven are committing as much time to their respective sport as some people are to a job, even though they receive little or no pay-off. Of course, this is an exaggerated comparison, but I still found it effective in illustrating the pressure that kids in travel sports sometimes face. 

So what constitutes a “good childhood?” Should kids be left on their own to explore and play, or should they be placed in organizations where they can develop a competitive drive and ability to work with others? In other words, what are the roles of free play and organized sports in child development? I reached out to Dr. Katy Hisrich and Dr. Amy Kelly for their expertise on the topic. Both women are professors in Governors State’s Early Childhood Development department. 

According to Dr. Kelly, free play allows kids to make their own choices in terms of who, what, where, and when they want to play. She pointed out the benefits of free play: it develops problem-solving skills and conflict resolution without adult interference, creativity, and brain development. Further, it encourages conversation, creativity, self-regulation, and the exploration of materials and emotions. When asked to describe the drawbacks of free play, Dr. Kelly said that none exist.  

Even though both professors were advocates for free play, they both emphasized the benefits of organized sport in developing children. Organized sports were defined by the professors as physical activity that is directed by a supervisor and that involves formal practice and competitions. Dr. Hisrich said that organized sports can help a child learn how to take criticism, to work with others, to effectively manage their time, and to be resilient. She also said that sports help to develop self-esteem, emotional regulation, and a positive work ethic.  

However, she added that organized sports — and particularly travel sports — have the potential to negatively impact a child if he or she is not fully invested. Even more than the sport itself, parents and coaches have the ability to shape a child’s relationship with organized sports, and it is important that they be aware of this power. 

Lastly, Dr. Kelly noted that one of the most important factors in childhood development is for the guardian to expose the child to a variety of activities at an early age and to allow them to choose what they want to participate in. This not only helps a child to explore their innate skills and passions, but it also lessens the likelihood that the child will be underinvested or emotionally-drained by a sport (or other activity).  

Most of all, parents have to accept the passions of their children and support them — even if those passions don’t lead to a full-ride college scholarship.