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Why Unstructured Playtime Is So Important for Young Athletes

Even though numerous studies have pointed out that unstructured playtime, like recess, improves children’s fitness, as well as benefits their social-emotional growth and academic performance, many schools across the country are cutting gym classes and shortening or even eliminating recess altogether.

Some cite budget concerns, others are worried about student safety, while other schools want to use that time to focus more on academics so students don’t fall behind when it comes to testing compared to other countries. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics,

Too many children in the USA have to give up free playtime because their parents, in a bid to help them do well, send them to classes and encourage them to take part in “development activities”. Several pediatricians in the report say they are finding that some children are becoming stressed – they are not getting enough ‘downtime’.

However, not every school is letting recess and playtime disappear. In fact, 14 public and charter schools in Washington, D.C. have overhauled recess dramatically to make playtime a priority.

Why is unstructured playtime so important for young athletes?

It teaches young players how to settle their own disputes

At these D.C. schools, teachers don’t get involved in playground disputes like whose turn it is. The children are taught to use the game rock-paper-scissors to resolve any disputes. And according to the schools the kids “do rock-paper-scissors when they disagree about whose turn it is or what game to play, and then they move on, no questions asked.”

Unstructured playtime means there are no coaches, no parents, and no officials, so players have to resolve any conflicts on their own. It’s so important that young athletes learn this life skill because there will come a time in their lives when no one else can swoop in and fix everything for them.

Of course, parents have every right (and responsibility) to step in when things really get out of hand, and kids are bullying each other, but letting children learn how to handle their own disputes/arguments is one of the best things unstructured play can teach young kids.

It encourages children to love being active

Children need at least 60 minutes of activity a day in order to lead healthy lives. Unstructured playtime, like recess, gives young athletes a chance to get up, get outside, and get moving.

And when kids are playing popular recess games like tag or capture-the-flag they don’t realize they are exercising; they have just having fun! It’s so much easier to be active when you are having a good time and let’s be honest, plenty of adults would be more likely to exercise regularly if we could play fun games as opposed to being stuck on a treadmill for an hour.

Unstructured playtime gives kids the opportunity to love being active and get used to doing something physical as part of their daily routine.

It teaches young athletes how to motivate themselves

When there are no parents or coaches or officials yelling at you to run instead of walk, execute XYZ play, or get on the field in a certain position, young athletes have to motivate themselves to play hard. This kind of internal motivation is something that makes one youth athlete stand out over another, even if one player is technically a “better” athlete.

During tryouts, coaches are going to notice which players are giving it their all every second of every play, and which ones are just going through the motions. Many coaches would rather have a motivated player they can coach into a great player over an unmotivated yet talented athlete.

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