The Role Of Free Play In Athletic Development

Why Free Play Can Be Better Than Fancy Drills

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The other day I was down at a local park with my 4-year-old and 2-year-old girls. The park is a vast green space surrounded by a cement path around which people walk, run, ride, and are dragged along by their dogs. The sun was out. People chatted on picnic blankets and enjoyed takeaway coffees from the cafe across the road. Others threw frisbees. A couple of personal trainers worked one-on-one with clients.

Amongst all this, my attention was drawn to a mum and dad set up with their son, a pop-up soccer goal, some cones, and an agility ladder.

I watched bemused as the boy slalomed around half a dozen cones then trotted through the agility ladder, before attempting to strike a ball into the awaiting goals. It then appeared mandatory that the boy – with eyes down – receive a few minutes of feedback from dad before trudging back to the start of the circuit to run robotically through the exact same sequence again. It was monotonous and completely uninspiring.

While I watched this, I made sure that I also kept an eye on my kids, who had taken up chasing birds. Creeping, running, dodging, stopping, starting, skipping, accelerating, strategising … and laughing delightedly. The contrasting scenes were not lost on me. It was clear which party was involved in the higher quality and more enjoyable athletic “workout”. The chasing of birds completely outshone the soccer drilling on levels of fun, variety, creativity, engagement, vigour, autonomy, and meaning.

Free Play As Athletic Development

Some of the best forms of training don’t look like what we traditionally think of as training.

And what we traditionally think of as training is rarely the best option for kids.

Youth Sport Resemble Elite Sports Quote

There was no doubt in my mind that our young soccer player would have benefited far more by getting rid of all the fancy equipment and simply having a kick or one-on-one game with his parents.

Vigorous physical free play is a valid athletic development tool. In fact, it may even be one of the best tools.

Vigorous free play will always outperform most sports drills in value for kids. Consider the sheer variety of movements, and the opportunities for creativity and decision-making that emerge during this type of play versus being corralled into narrow, pre-planned movement routines, devoid of any type of creativity, or the need to take initiative. Drills certainly have their place but they should not dominate a kids’ sports program, especially in the early years.

Advice to Coaches

Find inspiration from free play. While a coaching session can never truly be considered as free play, coaches should examine what fundamental features of free play that could be reproduced in a coaching session.

Free play is described by Play England as:

“… children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it and when to stop and try something else. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult imposed curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved, the child takes the lead and the adults respond to cues from the child.”

Free play is:

  • Unstructured
  • Spontaneous
  • Child-led

We need to look at what kids do when they have freedom in a physical environment and use this information to influence how we construct coaching sessions.

Try to predict the type of things that the kids would choose to do if you weren’t there. Then consider how you can best tweak or supplement this activity to make it even better. Take time to think like a kid. Your success compass is the kids’ engagement.

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Advice to Parents

It can be difficult to “coach” athleticism into kids if they are without some sort of naturally developed base.

Don’t always try to formalise a child’s free time. If possible, provide opportunities and create the environment for kids to get out and play. Take kids out into open spaces and playgrounds if this option is available. Maybe take a scooter, a bike, a frisbee or a ball as inspiration, but otherwise, just let them go. Most likely they will run, leap, swing, climb, balance, and laugh without much encouragement. Use your backyard if you have one. Resource the environment by providing them with easy access to a variety of simple equipment. Play England observes that: “The manner in which resources are stored and available to children supports or hinders their play.” Don’t try to “coach” them in a traditional sense. Avoid intervening too much. Step back and let them lead. Watch and learn.

Over To You!

If you are a coach of young athletes, figure out how aspects of your sessions can be guided by the principles of vigorous free play.

If you are a parent, your child is best served in the early years by you creating opportunities for vigorous free play – with and without sporting equipment – in preference to formal sports-specific drills that are directed by an adult.

Remember: Some of the best forms of training don’t look like what we traditionally think of as training. And what we traditionally think of as training is rarely the best option for kids.

Further Reading

Can We Make Coaching Sessions More Like Free Play?

Play England, “Free Play In Early Childhood: A Literature Review”


If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.


20150614_154020-1Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, Anchor or via email.

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