Maybe Your Kids Don't Want To Play Sports

Girl soccer players on bench
Has this happened to you?  Your daughter comes home from soccer practice and defiantly declares, “I can’t stand my coach, my team is awful and I don’t even like soccer.  I quit!”  Your parental thermostat kicks in as you try to gently lower the temperature in the room with those responses that all kids despise, “Oh, come on now, it can’t be that bad” or “But you’re good at soccer” and finally, “You know our rule, once you start something, you have to finish it. You can’t quit.”

You’ll talk to her coach, you’ll buy her new cleats, even get her on a better team.  But as parents, we often don’t even consider the remote possibility that… wait for it…. our child does not want to play soccer, or basketball or golf or even Aussie rules football.

Well-meaning articles about the tragedy of kids quitting sports are just a Google search away (heck, I even wrote one.)  Usually, we place the blame elsewhere with the assumption that all kids love sports, so if mine doesn’t then something must be wrong with the system.  Instead, we should delve deeper into the unique interests and needs of our son or daughter to find out if there is a better matched activity out there that doesn’t involve a ball, puck or $200 shoes.

To begin this discovery, we turn to Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul and founder of the National Institute for Play.  After years as a psychiatrist and researcher trying to understand why violent criminals became who they are (lack of childhood play), he has become the authoritative voice campaigning for more play time for kids in school and at home. 

“The act of play itself may be outside of ‘normal’ activities,” he wrote in Play. “The result [of play] is that we stumble upon new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, movements, or ways of being. We see things in a different way and have fresh insights.”
                Since the 2009 release of his book and his corresponding TED talk, which has had close to 1 million views, the science of play has received some serious attention.  This week at Clemson University, over 200 attendees heard Brown’s keynote speech at the 2014 conference of the US Play Coalition, a cross-section of academics, recreation professionals and health care experts.  Dozens of sessions focused on one single objective, getting kids into play activities that they enjoy.

To help organize all of these activities into a framework based on research, Brown introduced seven “patterns of play” that captures the evolution of fun interactions throughout a child’s life.

-  Attunement Play - getting connected to each other
-  Body Play and Movement - learning how we move in the world
-  Object Play - understanding physical objects and how to interact with them
-  Social Play - getting along with others
-  Imaginative and Pretend Play - exploring other possibilities
-  Storytelling and Narrative Play - building communication skills
-  Transformative, Integrative and Creative Play - problem solving with creativity

Part of Brown’s ongoing research is to understand how each of these play states changes the brain and benefits child development.  “Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process,” Brown said in a recent presentation.

While youth sports can fulfill one or two of the “patterns of play”, your child may need new opportunities to grow and develop.  Sit down with each of your kids and take Thrively’s Strength Explorer.  Explore other possibilities.  It’s OK if there is no trophy at the end of the day.