Active Play

Physical Activity Helps Kids Build Life Skills

Oct 1, 2013

"Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand."-- Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

Many parents at some point, and at some level, can relate to the teacher from the famous Peanuts cartoon, meaning there are many times when we feel that the only thing our children hear when we talk to them is, "whah whah whon whah whah." But as Nelson Mandela so eloquently highlighted, sport and physical activity speaks to children and youth in a unique way. The life lessons that sport can teach can often lead to the development of important life skills both on and off the playing field. As parents, we are constantly asking our children to "get along with others" or to "set some goals for yourself" or to "try and find the solution on your own." But just like they must learn to take their first steps, hold a spoon to feed themselves, and recognize the letters of the alphabet, so, too, must children learn - and have a chance to develop - important life skills, such as communication, cooperation, teamwork, problem-solving, resilience and goal-setting.Children often learn best through doing. Being told to cooperate with your brother or sister is tough if they have never learned the skills of how to cooperate. Below is a simple activity you could do to help your kids develop cooperation skills, among others, through physical activity.

  • Find a suitable object to play catch. It could be a stuffed animal in the house or a ball outside. 
  • Together, see how many times you as a family can catch the object without it hitting the ground.
  • Play a couple of times, and each time, try to beat your previous score.
  • Brainstorm together as a family some strategies of how to beat your score.

Then, once you get good at the above, change it up to make it more challenging:

  • Think of different ways to throw the object (e.g., throw it backwards, between your legs, high in the air). Encourage your kids to think of some ideas to foster their creativity skills. They are usually pretty good at finding some fun and unique ways to throw the object! When you do this, ensure that everyone gets a chance to try their idea so they learn how to communicate and express their opinion with others. It also teaches them to respect other people's ideas.

After you've played the game, ask your children, "What did you learn?" You might be surprised to discover that they not only learned to throw and catch, but they also had a chance to learn the importance of working with others to achieve a goal, how to think creatively, or how to negotiate in a fair way. Something as simple as playing a family game of catch can be a rich source of helping your children develop some important life skills that they can transfer to other parts of their life. The key is to use those "teachable moments" to help them hear what physical activity is teaching them, and how they can apply those skills in everyday life.


James Mandigo is Co-Director for the Centre for Healthy Development in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University located in the Niagara Region of Ontario, Canada. James is also the current President of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea) and former Ontario representative on the Physical and Health Education's Board of Directors. He was a writer for Ontario's 2010 Health and Physical Education Curriculum, and has conducted workshops with educators and practitioners locally and around the world pertaining to topics such as physical literacy, life skill development, teaching games for understanding and pedagogy. James has also worked extensively within developing countries. His current research and development project in El Salvador explores the role that sport and physical education have in the prevention of youth violence in that country. His research and development activities in this area have been funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council and Scotiabank International. James is the proud father of three children, Benjamin, Nathan and Lillian, and enjoys cheering on his wife, Karen, while she competes in triathlon and ironman events.

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