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Published on September 13, 2022

kids playing tag

Let Kids Be Kids: Play Before Sports

Growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, I spent most of my days running around playing tag, dodgeball or four-square. Sometimes we’d play steal the flag in the backyard.

It all was outside, spontaneous and part of some game we kids created on the spot. I always thought organized team sports were for “big kids” in the far-flung future of high school.

Play Comes Naturally to Us All

The innate sense of play I remember doesn’t just happen here in midwestern America. All over the world, from Georgia to Germany to Ghana, children left to spontaneous play make whatever’s available work for a game or an improvised version of sport.

Kids are responding to deep-in-our-DNA impressions that lead our bodies to move spontaneously through a wide variety of motions using all our muscles.

Here in the U.S., especially in the last 20 years, more moms, dads and coaches are encouraging children to join organized sports. Four-year-old kids are golfing, and parents preen about their 6-year-old son who might end up a major-league pitcher in a decade or so.

In reality, kids who leave playground time behind and replace it with lifting, throwing, batting and kicking lose out.

Rather than developing entire-body strength and flexibility from spontaneous play, they come to see me and other doctors because of overuse injuries. We see younger kids every year who overdid it.

Starting Early Doesn’t Mean Success in Sport

While I love the idea of kids doing anything off screens, it’s easy to overdo sports.

I fear both parents and eager kids buy into the long-shot (and often false) idea if they start to build skills around, say, 6 months, they will succeed/go pro/start on all the teams. Or, that if they don’t start early, they will never succeed in sports.

No one faults any parent who sees their child to be the “next big thing” in a sport. It is natural.

But the thrill of seeing your son or daughter be the best must be tempered with the facts:

  • Less than 1% of baseball players make the majors.
  • Few – if any – major league pitchers pitched in little league.
  • The best athletes in the pros grew up playing multiple sports.
  • Before they became great quarterbacks, pitchers or goalies – they were good athletes. Before that, they were playful kids making up games.

Make Fun the Priority

I hope you will encourage spontaneous, creative play with the kids in your life. Try to keep general athleticism in mind and consider sports-specific training later.

I say this having treated what we call “little league shoulder” in 10-year-old boys.

And I have helped 11-year-old girls deal with cases of “gymnast’s wrist” – due to overuse injuries during practice or competition. I also have helped other kids enrolled in daily hours-long Olympic training sessions, but not yet enrolled in high school.

Dr Jonathan Buchanan and familyDr. Jonathan Buchanan and family

I’ve even helped teens who face early-onset arthritis

Every parent wants their son or daughter to be the best, be it the MVP of the team they joined, or a future pro superstar.

I propose instead that we let kids be kids – and play like kids, too.

Jonathan Buchanan, MD, is an Avera Medical Group orthopedics and sports medicine physician who practices what he provides: he encourages his children – and all kids – to move more, with a focus on fun.

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