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Home > Blog > Children's play, health and wellbeing > Summer of sport, summer of play
Ingrid Skeels

Summer of sport, summer of play

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing on 28/07/2022

Whenever we’re rooting for home sports teams, local or national, and wanting those victories, it’s a good time to ask an important question: how and when do children find their way into sport today? And what does this mean for them – and for sport itself?

Playing outside and sport

Going back a few decades, most children found a doorway to sport through simply playing outside together – a normal part of everyday life in the streets, patches of land and parks close to home.

How did they encounter it? By playing games that had two sides and rules you had to follow, like Tag or British Bulldog. Copying older children and challenging themselves to learn new skills: gymnastics (hand stands, somersaults..), athletics (running, jumping…), ball skills (throwing, kicking) and learning to ride a bike round the block. And informal sport itself of course: a game of football wherever you could fling down jumpers to make a goal, or running races up and down the road.

Play: the foundation level

This was the democratic foundation level where children could experience sport every day, close to home, without any adult pressure and simply learn what they were good at or enjoyed.

And tons of brilliant sports people from football to cycling to athletics began from these roots – it was the norm! David Seaman, Sally Gunnell, Greg Rutherford, Jason Kenny, Chris Boardman, to name just the few we’ve talked to. And there are still many winning competitions today: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Charlotte Worthington.

The organised level

What about the other doorways? Obligatory school PE lessons led by a teacher. School sports teams. Adults taking you to the park. Clubs and activities that can need an adult with a car, time, money. All these were the second stage of the pyramid towards children becoming physically active adults or even – at the top – elite sportspeople. They weren’t the start.

And yet all of this has changed. Playing freely outside has been gradually eroded for children – their safe space taken away by traffic, the privatisation of space and a culture that no longer supports them being out. And because of these changes, experiencing sport increasingly now has to start at that second, more organised stage.

What’s been lost for children?

A significant amount, it turns out. That freedom to enjoy and try out different activities on a daily basis with other children.

Play street in Leeds

An early and purely playful, fun connection with sport. New challenges and physical skills. Friendships, team and social skills. And the ability to just join in, practice and improve when you want to.

As a result, many children will lose the chance to find ‘their’ sport and progress up through the levels of competition, perhaps even to the top. And more broadly, children lose out on the ability to just naturally enjoy daily physical activity from a very young age – a habit that could stay with them into adulthood and even for life, passed on to their own children.

What is lost for sport?

Also significant. Fun, playfulness and creativity are lost, when participation begins with coaching rather than outside free play (football is a good example compared to other countries where they still have these roots). Hunger and self motivation can be lost. Numbers of children and adults to take part are lost. Inclusive participation is greatly reduced, especially for some sports. Future sports stars and talent are, most definitely, lost. Because for any sport to flourish, it needs sportspeople to take part from the grassroots level up to elite national teams that can win trophies, medals and cups.

What’s the end result?

If a society strips away the safe spaces and opportunities for children to play outside together day to day, and for free, then the early, democratic foundation level for sport and physical activity also disappears. And with it, the foundation to so much of their health – and happiness. The physical activity statistics and state of children’s health nationally speak for themselves.

And if the first and only doorway to physical activity and sport is PE, that puts a huge pressure on children and teachers. And if it needs an adult with time, maybe a car or perhaps money, sport is going to get much less inclusive, and everyone loses. Especially the children who already face greater disadvantage and challenge in their lives.

Let’s change things! It’s not too late…

So while we watch, enjoy and support local and international sport, let’s seriously consider how it begins for children, and what we can do about that together.  Play streets are one important intervention (see what they’re saying in Hull). Campaigning for safer environments or longer school break times for children is another. Raising awareness of the importance of playing outside is very important – see our wonderful short film.  And serious policy change that addresses children’s needs and rights in public space is essential, in areas such as traffic, the built environment, housing and public health.

Let’s do all we can to help children have play in their lives, as it can only ever benefit them, their health, and sport itself.


Sign up to our newsletter if you want to be part of this. We’d also love to hear from parents and carers, sports people, teachers, grassroots clubs, national teams and sports super stars on this issue! Because along with vital PE teaching and grassroots sports in the UK – the latter mainly run through the dedication of amazing volunteers – we HAVE to tackle this issue together if we want children – and sport – to stop losing out. We are proud to be Daily Mirror Pride of Sport winners in 2019 and to be supported by Sport England Active Environments on this journey.


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