After taking the Free Play Pledge earlier this year, my sessions have moved from a mix of Free Play and well thought out coaching to the majority of the time being given over to Free Play.
The problem I've had, is explaining to coaches why I've moved in this direction.
Don't I want the children to learn?
Don't I want to the children to get better?
God yeah. Of course I do. I also believe they will do. But when the discussion about Free Play is always fixated on Learning, it becomes difficult to emphasise its benefits.
Even when the discussion is about Learning, different camps will try to make out that their form of Learning is the right one. Try adding Free Play into that mix!
I can quite easily write about how Play helps Learning but that would be missing the point entirely.
The best way to experience this is to throw yourself into Free Play for a period of time. Let the kids take over. Be brave, sit back and watch. Then, when you feel ready to move back to a formal coaching environment think about what is being taken away by altering the focus. We know we may be adding methodology in an attempt to instil Learning but what, and to what extent are we removing?
When I look at Informal Play compared to the sessions I was running I found lot's of things that I valued more than Learning. Please remember, I haven't said I don't value learning or that it doesn't happen in Free Play so it's still part of the mix.
So what are the reasons why I value Free Play?
1. Why not?
Everyone agrees that Informal Play has declined over the last couple of generations and everyone seems to lament this. So this is where I start. If I'm concerned about this reduction, I can do something about it. I can literally give this back. In fact, why wouldn't I?
Deep down I can understand why parents are less likely to allow kids to play Informally, I can understand that some parents feel their kids "might make it" and so value Formal coaching but I don't understand why, if they value Free, Informal Play they don't go in search of it. Why don't they ask for it? Why not demand it?
The rise of Childhood behavioural disorders and obesity has been linked in some ways to the reduction in Free Play but if parents (rightly or wrongly) don't feel safe allowing this to happen, we can actually provide it in albeit a watered down fashion.
So yes, just generally, I worry that the thing my generation benefited from we don't value enough to replicate. We threw the baby out with the bath water. We could have provided something like it via football but no, we replaced it with Formal, Coach Centered and Coach directed Play that places Learning at its pinnacle.
Having replaced Informal Play we have to admit we must also have replaced or disregarded some of the key benefits.
Formal Sport is great, I loved it and still love it but to me it's the "grown up" world. Teams in leagues doing battle to win. Us vs Them. Each week you go out against your adversary to beat them. This is fine for adults or even older youths but why is it needed for children?
When we rushed to replace Informal Play did we leave behind the idea that we are all just trying to enjoy the game we love?
When playing footy Informally, this week Jack may be on team A but next week he could be on team B. How do you feel this impacts Respect and Understanding for others?
Jack can't see Team B as the enemy when he plays them cos next week, he could be the enemy!
Fixed teams and adversaries are fine for adults but are they really what kids need?
I'd suggest that rushing to get kids in kits, in teams and leagues is a mistake and we can use our sessions to show there is a different way to approach the game. A way that respects everyone and provides the creative space for kids to fall in love with the game, not the result.
3. I Give Up
Formal coaching sessions can be fun. No one disputes that but are they as much fun as the game?
Deep down, we all know the answer to this. Mainly because we hear it requested every ten minutes or so.
In Informal Play the participant must be free to stop and they will stop mainly when it isn't fun. So, inherently, Informal Play will be shaped and amended and altered to ensure it remains fun. Otherwise kids will stop.
In our rush to Formal Coaching have we broken this link?
Most coaches would not entertain a child saying "this is boring can we do something else?". Especially a coach who has spent a few hours planning for the session. Even worse, the children quickly learn that saying this would not be a good idea. They become compliant and go through the motions, whether it's fun or not.
I believe that disregarding this inherent part of what makes play unique leads to drop out as time goes on. If a player can't alter things to keep it fun, why will they stick around?
4. Keeping it going
One reason Informal Play is so compelling is the fact that rules are not the "be all and end all". They are there to guide but can be altered if need be.
Formal Play has strict rules normally set out by the "Rule Giver". An adult.
I wonder if in our rush towards the "Rule Giver" we run the risk of taking away autonomy? We reduce the child's need to think creatively, satisfy various points of view and compromise?
Aren't these great skills to have?
5. It's not about the score - no, it really isn't.
When I was a kid I pretty much did nothing except eat, sleep and play footy. No computer games, no box sets, just Subbuteo and Tiswas.
I played football as much as I could. Every break, every lunch, straight after school and every weekend. I didn't play a Formal Game until I was 10. These games increased in Middle School to once a week and then I added another game for a club on Sundays.
Informally, I played at least ten times more football.
Formally, the score mattered. Not life or death but it mattered.
Informally, the score never mattered. I just wanted to do well and enjoy the game I loved. There was no need for a coach, a pre match warm up, a plan, tactics. We just played.
If one team went a few goals up, teams would be rearranged. Can you imagine doing that if there's a league at stake?
We learned to appreciate the game, to understand its nuances, to ensure others enjoyed themselves and not to steam roll your mates. You also tried things you would never dare to in the Formal game. Overhead kick? no problem. Across the box? of course, why not?
By trying these things, we got better. Strange that, I know.
By not being conditioned by one persons way of thinking about a game we grew, we took chances and we helped each other.
Also, we all learned different things. All taking our own bits from each experience.
Is it possible that in the rush to Formal Games we have reduced risk? Constrained creativity?
When I gave Free Play to the kids I noticed all these things. I realised the Informal Game brings so much more. It's not preparation for winning It's preparation for life. The endlessly changing life that kids will need to learn to navigate.
So when coaches ask what Free Play isn't I believe they are asking the wrong the question. I believe Free Play is richer, more varied and more fun and that's why I value it.