Are children’s busy schedules interfering with their childhood? Not so, says U of T study

12/07/2018

“Our results show that although participation in active free play peaks at approximately age 12 and then declines to age 14, children who participate in organized sport and physical activity maintain a higher level of active free play relative to their peers who are not involved in these organized activities,” says Professor John Cairney from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, who is the lead author of the study.

Despite widespread evidence supporting organized, extracurricular activities such as sport for the development of children and youth, parents may be excused for wondering if their children’s busy schedules are robbing them of free active play, an important component of overall health and development. 

“The relationship between organized sport participation and positive youth development is well established. In addition to the psychosocial benefits, organized sports participation is linked to health-related outcomes such as improved metabolic health and bone mineral density, and improved nutritional habits, including increased fruit and vegetable consumption,” says Professor John Cairney from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. 

“However, there are numerous benefits associated with free active play. In addition to health benefits, children and youth are given opportunities to be creative, learn to organize games in the absence of adults or specific rules, and develop or alter physical activity experiences in a variety of ways and settings,” he says. 

Cairney and his colleagues from U of T’s KPE and McMaster University’s Department of Kinesiology conducted a study to determine whether participation in organized sport and physical activity is associated with decreased participation in active free play and whether age, sex and socioeconomic status play a role. 

Over a five-year period, the researchers followed 2278 children moving through grades 5 to 8 using a self-reported sport and physical activity questionnaire. They discovered that higher participation in organized sport and physical activity was, in fact, associated with greater participation in active free play over time.  

“Our results show that although participation in active free play peaks at approximately age 12 and then declines to age 14, children who participate in organized sport and physical activity maintain a higher level of active free play relative to their peers who are not involved in these organized activities,” says Cairney, who is the lead author of the study. 

The researchers believe a possible explanation for this association may be related to the role sport plays in supporting physical literacy and the development of fundamental movement skills, allowing children to participate in more active play pursuits in their free time. 

“Organized sport and physical activity often involve a skill development component, where fundamental motor skills are practiced and reinforced,” says Cairney. “Because children do not naturally acquire many of these skills, the acquisition and reinforcement of a range of these skills through structured experiences may provide the foundational skills necessary to facilitate participation in a broader range of discretionary activities in children.” 

“Another explanation for a positive effect of organized sport and physical activity on active free play may be that children who are naturally inclined to be active simply participate in a wide variety of activities, some organized and others discretionary,” says Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, assistant professor at KPE and co-author of the study.   

The researchers found the positive effect of sport participation on free play to benefit both sexes, although the effect is marginally better for boys than for girls. At the same time, however, sex and socioeconomic status are among the most important barriers to children’s participation in organized sport. 

“Removing structural and social/cultural barriers to organized physical activity participation is important for participation in sport per se and may also help to support active free play. This should be a priority for policy makers, communities and parents,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos. 

The positive relationship between organized sport and physical activity participation and free active play also provides some indirect evidence against early specialization in a single sport or physical activity at the exclusion of other activities. 

“Given the importance of free active play to development, it is reassuring to see that participation in organized sport and physical activity does not negatively affect discretionary active play,” says Cairney. 

“However, we found that the pursuit of multiple sporting and physical activity endeavors, rather than one single activity, encourages free active play in children and youth and may be more appropriate for promoting positive psychosocial outcomes,” he says.