Skip the Sports: The Benefits of Good Ole Outdoor Play

Children 5 to 8 years old should be busy working out their little bodies and improving physical abilities – and not just for development. According to the authors of Beyond Winning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment, young kids aren’t quite ready for highly-organized team sportsAt age five they’re mastering climbing structures and ladders at the park, and at home they are practicing holding a pencil and writing their name. By age 8, they’re just getting ready for bats and balls.

So what’s the purpose of all this unstructured play? When your children have fun-filled days full of free-form games and physical activities, between the ages of 5 and 8, you can expect them to:

  • Gain confidence in all areas of life
  • Become agile and energetic
  • Develop their imagination
  • Enjoy new challenges and the pursuit of learning new things
  • Be interested in getting along with others

There are some time-honored childhood activities that develop the gross motor skills, coordination, and balance they will use later in team sports – if that’s what they want to do. So if you’re a sports fan, delay the soccer tryouts or basketball teams in the earliest years, and reap the rewards later in life.

Choose outdoor play over competitive sports

“Step back and concentrate on fun,” is the message of the Beyond Winning sports philosophy. Don’t spoil your child’s relationship with athletics by bringing pressure and competition too early in the mix. In fact, they recommend “home schooling” in sports until the age of nine to eleven.

Translate “homeschooling in sports” to “play outdoors” and you get the idea. Easier said than done, you may be thinking, when kids are often pressured to specialize in one sport from an early age – especially if you’re looking for the social interaction and team spirit involved. But according to the authors, delaying gratification for team sports has important benefits.

Gain brain skills and social skills too

It’s good old-fashioned, unstructured play that allows your children to develop a variety of aspects in their personal growth – physically, emotionally, and socially. Simple outdoor play:

  • Develops a broad range of neurological network connections that supports intellectual growth
  • Teaches how to share, resolve conflicts, make decisions, be assertive, and work in groups
  • Allows children to identify, express, and learn about feelings
  • Allows for creative thinking and problem-solving  

Concentrate on play

Home schooling in sports for ages 5 through 8 concentrates on developing a child’s movement skills, coordination, and balance. It’s a time when they are naturally interested in getting better at running, jumping, skipping, dancing, climbing, and throwing balls. They crave and need experiences that develop the muscle groups involved in all those activities.

Jumping rope, hopscotch, walking the plank, crossing the monkey bars, learning to ride a bike, and playing catch are all important skills to develop and precursors to more complicated organized sports.

Childhood games that develop skills

Maybe you remember these games from childhood but never thought of them as important to the development of academic, physical, and social skills. But make sure your children have a regular dose of these good old-fashioned games and they’ll be developing all areas of growth:

  • Hide and Seek Tag – The cognitive benefits of the game are many: Problem-solving skills, physical coordination, stamina development, and the social skills required to resolve conflict, take turns, and work as a team.
  • Jump Rope – Saying the rhymes at the same time as jumping develops left and right hemisphere coordination while your child builds physical strength.
  • Four Square – From being the peasant to becoming the kind, four square builds coordination, promotes fair play, and helps children learn sportsmanship – whether they win or lose.
  • Balance Beam – Walking a balance beam (or a simple 2 x 4 piece of lumber board) helps children practice balance and learn body awareness. Understanding the movements of one’s left and right later helps reading from left to right, and comprehending letters in the right order.


The authors of the whole child sports movement go on to say that, “Sports-specific skills are not taught at this stage. Once or twice a week a mini-Olympics comprised of games that encourage movement, experimentation, and creativity can be set up. These are not outcome-oriented games. The emphasis is on fun and skill development.”   

A regular mini-Olympics among the neighborhood kids helps children work on their physical skills within the context of fun, not performance. Give your kids the idea of a “personal best” when they run races or try to win a ball game. And teach them to strive for improvement. 

Individual personalities

When children are trained exclusively in team sports from a young age, they risk group mentality taking over an adequate sense of individuality. Confidence in one’s self and one’s own individual physical abilities is important in developing creative thinking, individual expression, and self-awareness.

What’s your view on team sports: an important American tradition, or getting too competitive to be fun? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Tags : sports   play   games   motor skills   development   health   

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