At school I was always about 5 metres away from a soccer ball. If I didn’t have one in my bag, then my mates did. If we weren’t in lessons, we were on the school tennis courts with our bags as goalposts, scuffing up my trainers. I went through a pair every couple of months – which didn’t make me too popular with my mum!
Outside of school, my mates and I would go for ‘kick-about’ down the local park. And if that didn’t happen, I was in the back yard juggling or trying out various tricks and moves. My parents didn’t even bother to try to have nice flowers and grass till I left home as they knew my soccer ball would just flatten all their plants. I basically spent my childhood with a ball. I explain to the kids I coach now that the soccer ball used to be my best friend! (they look at me funny).
I learnt so much playing in the play ground and in the streets. This is where we practised the latest moves and tricks so we could show off at school. This is where our touch became Messi-like. This is where we toughened up when we had to play against the older, bigger kids because their ball went over the fence. This is where I learnt to combat boredom. Every single thing that happened had a direct impact on how I played as a professional and semi-professional.
Having been fortunate enough to travel to many different places around the world, this concept of play is stronger than ever in some places. In Tanzania and Malaysia, playing soccer with coke cans in-between houses in the local village. In Philippines, watching kids take off their flip-flops and use them as dodge-balls. Anywhere, anyhow they would make it happen. It was a privilege to see such pure and raw passion for sports. It was a privilege to see such a strong sense of community and togetherness. It was amazing to see such independence and ownership in children.
Since moving to Denver, Colorado, in December of 2015, I was so pleased to see so many fields with goal posts, tennis courts with great surfaces and basketball courts everywhere. But no-one was there! These places where empty all the time. ‘Oh it’s winter, maybe they get busier in the spring and summer’, I thought to myself.
Well here I am, almost a year later coming up to Halloween and these places have been vacant all year round – except if there is something organised going on with parents and referees. I coach at a local park in a neighbourhood surrounded by elementary, middle and high school kids. I regularly see one kid with a lacrosse stick and a ball playing against a brick wall. He is literally the only kid I see. This is safe neighbourhood with great facilities.
What are all the kids doing? Is the concept of play completely lost? Are kids just too busy to play these days?
From what I’ve seen in this country, it seems that kids will only be taking part in something if it is organised, supervised and structured. Kids seem to be busier than parents. They have school, then homework, then an organised activity. The parents have work and then have to taxi their kid to all these organised activities. I’ve only been here a year, so I would be ecstatic to be proved wrong.
How refreshing it would be to see a load of kids come down to the local park and play. They make up the rules, they’re the referee, they’re in charge.
I coach at a local soccer club and one evening, a coach didn’t show up one night due to a miscommunication. The players waiting for their coach were 16-17 year old girls. They asked me what they should do and if I could coach them. I told them to get together, show some creativity, leadership and initiative and organise their own practice. They looked at me as if shot their grandmother.
I have to admit though, once I gave them a pep talk and one minutes worth of guidance, I watched the girls completely organise and run a practise successfully on their own, for the next hour and a half. They came off the field proud of what they’d achieved. They took it seriously, did things properly and were blown away and so happy that they could do it! I think it was one of their most purposeful sessions in a long time!
So not all hope is lost. As educators and parents, let’s give these kids their independence back. Let’s expect them to act independently and allow them to make mistakes. They will only learn by doing, not by being guided all the time. Let’s let them be kids and play. They’ll have the rest of their lives to be adults and take things seriously. Not to mention how much better it will make them at sports!