Children playing with a skipping rope
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Family Health

Why I’m All For Unstructured Play As Children’s Fitness

Feb 23, 2018

A child’s imagination at play is a wonder to behold. How often have you given your young ones free reign over crayons or building pieces and watched their creativity soar?

Unlike us, [the children] didn’t turn and jump the rope in the expected — and, dare I say, boring — way.

This sort of unfiltered originality isn’t limited to table-top arts and engineering. That same inventiveness is often seen when children are equipped with simple sport and recreation items — a ball, hula hoop or skipping rope, for example.

Studies by the Aspen Institute Project Play Report indicate a 70 per cent decline in organized sports participation by children under 13. Increased pressure from parents and coaches, loss of ownership over the experience and fear of failure are some of the reasons cited for this saddening statistic.


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While I support and have personally benefited from participation in organized youth sport, I believe that for young children, unstructured play promotes the development of their imagination and health. I’ve learned that, left to their own free play, children can define their own creative, heart-pumping ways to stay active and engaged.

Similarly, I’ve seen my daughter spend close to 30 minutes moving over, under, around and through hula hoops without instruction at summer fun events.

On a crisp Sunday morning last fall, certified personal trainer Kara Stewart and I hosted a family fitness fundraiser at a local schoolyard. Community members, outfitted in warm leggings and toques, pushed, pulled and lunged through our outdoor circuit of exercises. Those with sons and daughters in tow invited them to join in, encouraging them through the structured program of one minute intervals. Many of the kids impressed us with chin-up attempts on the high bar and jump squats in the sand pit.

But the real magic took place 45 minutes later. Kara and I exchanged our stopwatches for cups of coffee and rested on oversized rocks with our fitness-loving friends. With us grown-ups out of the way, the children took to a skipping rope abandoned on the pavement. Unlike us, they didn’t turn and jump the rope in the expected — and, dare I say, boring — way.

Instead they snaked it along the ground, held it up taut like a tightrope and wrapped themselves in it, taking turns inventing new rules of play as they went. It was curious and fun to see them use it so differently than we had. They were fair, inclusive, active and clearly having fun.


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Similarly, I’ve seen my daughter spend close to 30 minutes moving over, under, around and through hula hoops without instruction at summer fun events. I remember being surprised at the length of time it took for her body and imagination to tire of this single piece of equipment.

I’ve learned that, left to their own free play, children can define their own creative, heart-pumping ways to stay active and engaged.

Canadian Olympian and mother Silken Laumann supports the idea of this sort of unstructured play for kids. In a Toronto Star article she shares her belief in “play being a foundational activity that promotes a lifelong love of movement.” She goes on to suggest that “as parents, we can play a much more positive and proactive role in not just driving our kids to a sport, but actually connecting with neighbours and friends to create play in our communities, and let sport wait to later on.”

Bearing in mind the many benefits of physical activity for children — healthy weight, reduced stress, improved school performance, set up for healthy adulthood, etc. — I’m all for encouraging more forms of freestyle fitness to keep young ones moving.

And the great news for parents is that you don’t have to be a sporty mom or fit dad to a be a great role model. Next time you’re hanging out in the park, driveway or rec room, toss your kid the ball, hula hoop or skipping rope, and let them take the lead.

Article Author Debbie King
Debbie King

Read more from Debbie here.

Debbie King (aka SUPAFITMAMA) is a Toronto-based masters athlete, influencer, freelance writer, wife and mother of one. At age 42, she is training toward her goal of becoming a 2020 World Masters Athletics track and field champion. In her work as a writer and influencer, Debbie creates powerful content and connections in female fitness, sport, wellness and culture. Body positivity, inclusion and representation are strong themes throughout. As a regular contributor for CBC Parents, she explores a range of healthy living topics for individuals and Canadian families. Follow her journey at supafitmama.com and on Instagram and Twitter.

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