What Happened to Playing?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC

The humorist Jim Rohn once said, “If you ever yearn for the “good old days,” turn off the air-conditioning.” And it is true that we live in a time when technology, advances in medicine, and modern conveniences have made us more comfortable than ever. But if there is one thing from the past I do yearn for, it is the days when kids played games outside together.

I know – the world is not the same place it was when we were young. My wife or I walked my grade school daughter to and from school every day, though I walked to school alone when I was in first grade. I wouldn't let her go herself up to the soccer fields to shoot on the goals by herself, which meant someone had to take time out of their busy days to play with her.

The house in which I grew up had a huge backyard surrounded by a dozen or so houses. We played baseball or football every free moment we had. We made our own rules, called our own plays, settled our own disputes, and got really good at playing from instinct, rather than from being instructed through each step. And while there was no adult supervision, plenty of parents were home who occasionally looked out their windows, or who would offer a safe haven if anyone with bad motives had ever shown up.

Years ago I went back to my hometown and walked into to my old backyard with my son. It was obvious no kids had used that lawn as a ball diamond or gridiron in years. Studies show that fewer and fewer kids go outside and engage in simple free play anymore. Childhood obesity in America is at an all-time high. But I believe it is more than just concern for safety that has led to this dramatic decrease.

Electronic Distractions

Clearly, video and computer games play a role. I’m not an ogre who says ‘no video games in my house.’ Heck, when I was a kid, I had a baseball board game with statistically accurate cards for every player in the Major Leagues spread out over our entire living room floor. I played it for hours at a time. If I had owned today’s sports video games, I hate to admit it, but I doubt you’d have been able to get the controller out of my hands.

That is why it is up to us, as parents, to set limits. In our house, the summer rule is, no Playstation or computer until you’ve gone outside and done something. Shot baskets or soccer balls, gone surfing, hit baseballs at the field, ridden your bike – anything. And you’d be surprised how often that first step outside turns into hours in the sunshine.

Paid Coaches

I also believe that the ubiquitous nature of competitive sports has played a role. Now, kids have games and tournaments scheduled every weekend, which leads parents to convince themselves that their children are getting all the sports they need. And this has spawned the onset of private lessons. When you were a kid, did you ever know anyone who took private soccer or baseball lessons? Or who had a personal fitness trainer? Me neither. Yet now, it is nearly every day that I’ll drive by one of our local schools and see a mom, sitting in a lawn chair reading a magazine, while her son or daughter is practicing one-on-one with a grown-up coach. Couldn’t that same mom have said, “Call up some of your friends and I’ll go up to the school with you so you guys can all play,”?

Some might feel that their kids won’t develop as many skills just playing pick-up games, but many experts disagree. I can tell you that one entire summer when my three boys were younger, they played non-stop wiffle ball. First thing every morning they went down to the end of the cul-de-sac along with several neighborhood friends, and literally played through lunch until it was dinnertime. How did that make them better at baseball? I have seen them repeatedly make instinctive baserunning or fielding plays that did not come as a result of any coaching. These were not situations that had been covered at practice, but were instant reactions based purely on experience. And we all know experience is the best teacher.

Some of the best soccer and baseball players in the world are coming from Latin, African or Middle Eastern countries where kids don’t have any options but to go outside and play all day. Games early in the morning might just be two against two, and then grow to five vs. five, and into small mobs by late afternoon. Often, the amount of time spent playing is only limited by daylight.

Kids playing pick-up games are learning more than how to play sports. They’re learning conflict resolution and social skills, they’re testing their own athletic boundaries without fear of adult disapproval, and oh yes – they’re having fun.

So I’m not advocating that we go back to the dark ages and eliminate air-conditioning. But maybe if we turned off the air-conditioning once in a while, our kids would head outside and make a beautiful day of it.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at He can be reached at


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