'There can be no keener revelations of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children' - Nelson Mandela

This week [Oct 2015], the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on a Fit and Healthy Childhood released their latest report, Play. The report is a comprehensive look at aspects of play, including play in schools; health benefits of play; and the role and responsibilty of government. Although football is not mentioned specifically, there is lots of implied learning in the report for the adults in charge of organised children's football. This post will look at play  and football, and conclude that - although thousands of children across the country train and perform in football games each week - there is very little play left in football anymore.

Play is an overused word for what is actually a very fragile and increasingly rare state. Children play on the playstation; they play cards; they play for a football team. They have playtime at school, and after school they might go to the playground or have a play date. They play-up, they play-act, they play around. Play seems to be everywhere.

Ask parents whether their children play and they will almost certainly say yes. For parents of football children, it would be common I think for them to mention that their child plays football twice during the week and plays a game on the weekend. “My son plays for West Green Wanderers FC” the parent might say proudly. But what kind of play is this when the adults in charge have arranged it so the child needs to spend more time in the car travelling to play than they actually get playing. And when they do play, there is almost always an adult agenda, a game to win, a plan to follow, restrictions on what is possible. When play happens in a cauldron, with adult eyes watching, with parents and coaches calling instruction, is it really play?

"Many people regard play as a process not an outcome. It has no defined purpose or agenda other than what is in the mind of the child at that moment. In reality, there are levels of adult control depending on the situation, but what is most important is that no adult is at that moment, steering what is happening. Enablement of play through 'light touch and design' is a particular skill if it is to remain 'play' rather than an adult-controlled activity of arguably less value."

- Play report, APPG on Fit and Healthy Childhood

  • Given the definition above, how much time in organised football is spent in play?
  • Is there any moment at all in training, practice or competitive games that is free of an adult "steering"?
  • Is the verb 'play' actually appropriate to use in relation to the structures we have made for children's football? (Would 'perform' be a better verb? "My son performs for West Green Wanderers FC" is probably more accurate) .

The video below explains how Play has become Practice in organised sport for children:

The following quote is particularly relevant to the families of children playing organised football: "If they are playing specialised soccer at six and they do it for 10 years, by the time they are 16 it has felt like a job". There seems to be a trend for children to start organised, adult-lead sport programmes at younger and younger ages. Organised football can begin at age two nowadays with several large private companies targetting this demographic with classes which actually contain less movement, less variety, and less play than a child would get if they just spent the hour at the local playground instead.

The above passages are taken from the book Beyond Measure, which looks at childhood and the stresses and pressures that we force onto it. The descriptions in the passages are good examples of how play can be completely swamped by organised practice for some families. (It should be said that there are some great potential benefits of organised sport and team sport for children - including team work, commitment, leadership etc - however when there is no time left for play, then clearly there is a problem. Play needs to be scheduled in too, it's too important to miss out.)

'We can discover more about someone in an hour of play than in a year of conversation' - Plato

The right to play for all children and young people up to age 18 is preserved in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child; ratified by the UK Government in 1991. General Comment 17 of this Article clarifies the expectations of the UN that national governments should honour its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil children's right to play by taking purposeful action on a range of fronts, including legislation, planning and funding.

"Play is important to healthy brain development. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self advocacy skills. Playing is children's default setting. It is a deep, biological and psychological trait found in virtually all the animal species. It is the way that the young orientate themselves, discover how to engage with, navigate and co-create the world of which they are a part. Play is an evolutionary imperative which means that children who play are acquiring the self-confidence and developing the mental and emotional capacity not just to deal with what life may have in store for them but to live fully, moment to playful moment." - Play report, APPG on Fit and Healthy Childhood

The video asks: Help me remove the barriers that prevent me from playing?

That's us, isn't it, the barriers? We are the barriers, the adults. We are the ones who prevent them from playing. Remove us, and play - in it's true sense - would be inevitable.

"Physical activity is often adult-lead and therefore limits child development in many crucial life-skills areas." - Play report, APPG on Fit and Healthy Childhood

The play environment - the one where children are creative and free - is not a resilient one. A well-meaning adult who interferes with a child’s play – to instruct or offer help for example - can break the moment like bursting a bubble. Playfulness can disappear in a heartbeat, and play cares who's watching.  All the brilliant side-effects of children’s play - the creativity, the self-expression and choice – are all very wary of the adults who might walk in at any moment.

For example, let’s say that one of the key aspects and benefits of play is to be found in child-lead decision-making (and all the learning implicit therein). This could look like children deciding what to play or what to play with; children deciding for themselves how to play and who with; children forming their own rules and self and peer regulating them; children deciding how to deal with people who break the rules etc. This is all important for children as this decision-making experience can lead to better communication skills, in particular better listening skills; better diplomacy, sensitivity, empathy; increased confidence at joining in games; working together etc.

Now what happens when a coach enters this kind of child-centred play environment? They bring their own agenda, they have planned a session, they have their own learning outcomes (almost always related to the technical aspects of the sport, e.g. better backhand volleys in tennis or better changing direction in football). The children’s own decision-making and leadership of their time disappears and all the benefits of that decision-making experience vanish too. That is not to diminish the role of an expert coach, for the outcomes they have planned are valuable too – however usually all the unique elements of ‘play’ which allow the child to grow in their way at their own speed are drowned by organisation, instruction and an adult agenda of sport development.

"In schools, at secondary and elementary level, recess continues to be shortened and many schools perceiving free play to be disruptive, have replaced it with structured games run by play 'coaches'. The prescriptive (and restrictive nature) of this approach is captured by the Playworks Direct Service promotional material:

Through our full-time, year-round direct service model, our coaches enhance and transform recess and play into a positive experience that helps kids and teachers get the most out of every learning opportunity. Our rock-star coaches strive to know every child by name, orchestrating play and physical activity through the five components of the Playworks program every day.

Although it is the duty of adults to create the appropriate opportunities for play, the need for play to be 'transformed', 'orchestrated' and 'controlled' is counter-productive to the right of a child to play freely with all the attendant advantages." - Play report, APPG on Fit and Healthy Childhood

"What matters most is the quality of the experiences offered to young children. High quality experiences come only from high quality staff; effective professionals continually developing their own knowledge, skills and understanding, respecting and valuing all phases of childhood and equipped with the confidence to engage imaginatively and knowledgeably with parents. Training in play should therefore be considered not in the light of an option, but as integral to both the initial qualification and ongoing professional development of the entire children's workforce." - Play report, APPG on Fit and Healthy Childhood

  • Is there learning for the content of our football coaching courses?
  • Do 5-11 year olds need more football coaches, or would they be better with playworkers who create play environments with footballs in them?

"It is enjoyable to make things visible that are invisble." - Eric Cantona

It is not only children that need play. Football needs play too. To be precise, football needs children who have grown up playing football, not performing football.

How many footballers who can 'play' does our culture really produce? Gazza was probably the last one, and he a rare example of someone whose innate creativity and playfulness the predominant performance culture couldn't smother.

Would we produce more and better footballers if we embraced playfulness more in the younger ages, and allowed adult-free playtime throughout the footballing pathways?

Ways we can promote and enhance play in for our football children

  • Limit distances we travel to games, to allow children more play time at home (instead of car time)
  • Allocate time in football training sessions for child-lead play (where the coach leaves their agenda at home and just brings some footballs and lets the children work out what the session looks like)
  • Find ways of bringing park football and street back. For example, this could be to arrange for a group of children to meet in the park to play, while parents look out for them but don't interfere in their games.
  • Recognise that football is just a small part of play, and that other sports are just as important to the healthy development of children.
  • Limit organised, structured sessions to just two or three hours a week. Don't timetable all children's time with a structured learning agenda.

Schools have a MASSIVE part to play in this. 20% of school life is spent in play. Yet some schools limit play with crazy rules like 'no running in the playground'. Organisations like Outdoor Play and Learning show what is possible when schools embrace the beauty and possibility of proper play.

"Children attend primary school for seven years. Of those seven years, around 1.4 years will be spent outside actively playing, making 'playtime' by far the most dominant element within the curriculum. Unlike sport and PE lessons, children's active play can claim 100% engagement, providing it is delivered with the right expertise, consistency and understanding of children's social and emotional needs." - Outdoor Play and Learning, Programme brochure

In Eastern China, Anji Play is a new concept in play for young children in schools. The video below shows some of the Anji programme in action:

It looks great, doesn't it? Surely for every parent, that is what we want for our children: to explore, to collaborate, to try new things, to move, to experiment, to construct, to create, to play. For all ages of children, the development of these skills need to be just as important as numeracy and literacy learning.

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  By Mark Carter, October 2015

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Mark Carter


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