Kids Who Engage in More FREE PLAY Get Fewer Injuries When They Play Organized Sports

Hi Readers — Here’s a cool study from Loyola University about something that doesn’t surprise me at all: The more that kids play on their own, the less likely they are to get injured while playing their organized sports.

A press release about the study was titled, “To Protect Against Injuries, Young Athletes May Need to Play More Just for Fun.” It says:

One way to avoid injuries in young athletes may be for them to simply spend more time in unorganized free play such as pick-up games, a Loyola University Medical Study has found.

In a first-of-its-kind study, sports medicine specialist Dr. Neeru Jayanthi and colleagues found that injured young athletes who play a single sport such as tennis spent much less time in free play and unorganized sports than uninjured athletes who play tennis and many other sports.

In this collaborative study, Jayanthi followed 891 young athletes who were seen at Loyola University Health System and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago clinics. Participants included 618 athletes who sought treatment for sports injuries and 273 uninjured athletes who came in for sports physicals. Study participants included 124 tennis players (74 of whom played tennis exclusively).

Among single-sport tennis players, the ones who suffered injuries spent 12.6 hours per week playing organized tennis and only 2.4 hours per week in free play and recreation. By comparison, the uninjured tennis players spent only 9.7 hours per week playing organized sports, and 4.3 hours a week in free play and recreation, even while having a similar total number of weekly hours. In other words, the injured tennis players spent more than 5 times as much time playing organized tennis as they did in free play and recreation, while the uninjured players spent only 2.6 times as much time playing organized tennis as they did in free play and recreation.

What I love about these findings is that, once again, fun that kids make on their own — i.e., goofing around — turns out to be EXCEEDINGLY BENEFICIAL in the non-goof-around world of organized sports. The same way RECESS — which looks like goofing around — turns out to be BENEFICIAL to students in the non-goofing-around business of buckling down to school work.

Maybe what kids need is a little less over-scheduling and hovering — at least, if we want them to become safer and smarter. – L.

The key to health and safety: Letting kids play on their own!

The key to health and safety: Letting kids play on their own!

21 Responses to Kids Who Engage in More FREE PLAY Get Fewer Injuries When They Play Organized Sports

  1. lexi January 12, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    This news also does not surprise me. I participated in free play as a child, that might be currently viewed as violent, dangerous or inappropriate–and I’m sure if my mom was aware of my every move, she wouldn’t have approved, particularly when I would go rattlesnake hunting (no, I did not kill them, I just liked to find them).

    I also had an impressive arsenal of “baked mud-balls” which was used as homemade ammunition to protect my “fort” against marauding cousins and my younger brother–I had a pretty good aim and my mud-balls were as hard as rocks–no one was ever injured, and my fort was never successfully invaded. I could go on and on. The type of “free play” I participated in inspired ingenuity, a love of nature, and an intoxicating sense of freedom and independence. Free play rules

  2. Andrea January 13, 2013 at 12:30 am #

    A recent tribute to Montessori:

    “So in the school, we still believe it necessary to have heavy desks and chairs fastened to the floor. All these things are based upon the idea that the child should grow in immobility, and upon the strange prejudice that, in order to execute any educational movement, we must maintain a special position of the body;–as we believe that we must assume a special position when we are about to pray.

    Our little tables and our various types of chairs are all light and easily transported, and we permit the child to select the position which he finds most comfortable. He can make himself comfortable as well as seat himself in his own place. And this freedom is not only an external sign of liberty, but a means of education. If by an awkward movement a child upsets a chair, which falls noisily to the floor, he will have an evident proof of his own incapacity; the same movement had it taken place amid stationary benches would have passed unnoticed by him. Thus the child has some means by which he can correct himself, and having done so he will have before him the actual proof of the power he has gained: the little tables and chairs remain firm and silent each in its own place. It is plainly seen that the child has learned to command his movements.

    In the old method, the proof of discipline attained lay in a fact entirely contrary to this; that is, in the immobility and silence of the child himself. Immobility and silence which hindered the child from learning to move with grace and with discernment, and left him so untrained, that, when he found himself in an environment where the benches and chairs where not nailed to the floor, he was not able to move about without overturning the lighter pieces of furniture. In the “Children’s Houses” the child will not only learn to move gracefully and properly, but will come to understand the reason for such deportment. The ability to move which he acquires here will be of use to him all his life. While he is still a child, he becomes capable of conducting himself correctly, and yet, with perfect freedom.”

  3. Lisa Jones January 13, 2013 at 12:54 am #

    I’m sorry if I read this study wrongly, but did they really base their conclusions on only 74 children? 74 seems like an awfully low number to speak broadly about every child and every organized sport and every unorganized play.

  4. Donald January 13, 2013 at 1:15 am #

    Goofing around starts at a young age.

    It starts off as harmless things such as wearing a plastic bowl as a hat or drawing with pen on your arm. The hazards increase gradually such as playing tag on the concrete where one might get a skinned knee.

    We use to be able to slide on steel slides where we can learn how to deal with metal that’s been sitting in the sun and how to identify when it becomes too hot to fool around with. We also had swings that had chain links big enough to pinch your fingers and wooden playground equipment where you could get splinters. We threw the playground bark at each other and learned how dust can get into your eyes.

    All this time, we were learning and practicing safety and how to think for ourselves.

  5. mollie January 13, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    I can just hear the tiger mother’s roar: “But how many of those uninjured players were ranked in the top 10?”


  6. Lisa January 13, 2013 at 6:02 am #

    I agree with the sentiment of this article, but I’m not sure the data seems valid. They say that “injured young athletes who play a single sport such as tennis spent much less time in free play and unorganized sports than uninjured athletes who play tennis and many other sports”. It sounds like the difference between the two groups was NOT just free play time; the uninjured group plays other sports. It sounds like it could just as easily be used as a study supporting the benefits of cross-training, and having kids play multiple sports. And, the injured group is participating in one sport for a high number of hours per week. I would have liked to see a better set of data: kids involved in the same organized sports for the same number of hours per week, and then look at injury statistics as compared to the amount of time they spend in free play. This feels like inconclusive data (in a study with poor data controls) being presented to prove a point… a point which I happen to agree with, but still…

  7. Taradlion January 13, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    The science geek in me agrees with Lisa. The “one sport” kids will also be more prone to injury because of repetitive movements required for one sport (like swinging a racket, or pitching in baseball). Kids who play more than one sport (or are given time to play) use muscles differently and use other muscle groups. Basically the study is demonstrating that intense focus on a single sport can lead to injuries in kids.

    That said, I swear, my son learned to fall through crazy free play. He also gained other skills (balance etc). I was sad last summer when he said he didn’t want to join friends in pick up baseball games because, “they all play baseball like 100 times a week”….I actually sent him to a week of low pressure (nearly impossible to find) baseball camp to build his confidence. He does participate in other organized sports just not baseball which by age 8 his friends/cousin were committing to 3+ nights a week or all weekend.

  8. Meagan January 13, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    I’m all for free play, but this study doesn’t really show anything about free play. For one thing, the athletes who were more injured spent more time playing an intense, coached sport, and more time overall exercising. Of course they’re going to get injured more. Free play might be a component, but this data doesn’t demonstrate it. All this study says is kids who spend more time being active are more likely to get hurt.

  9. Taradlion January 13, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    @Megan- Actually, it does not say “kids who are more active”… Just kids doing the SAME sport – I think it speaks more to repetitive movement/ overuse of the SAME muscles. Kids doing multiple sports and engaged in free play might be just as active. Perhaps even more so.

  10. KMary January 13, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Love studies and articles like this one and the one about the benefits of recess. But I hate that we need formal studies and medical experts to tell us this stuff…

  11. Leslie January 13, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    I have no data for this, but I feel like this is likely true for grown-ups as well. I love to run on my remote county road and trails, and I love to ski. 4 years ago, after 40 injury-free years skiing, I had a bad fall and needed surgery. Since that time, a contingent of well-meaning friends have been trying to get me to stop running and skiing for fear I will hurt myself. I do my best to take proper precautions, but I love running and skiing. Giving them up would break my heart. Beyond that, however, I look at the friends who are trying to convince me to quit, and they are not a good advertisement. One had a bad fall in her bathroom and has horrible pain since. Another has gained a lot of weight and has pain in her knees. I feel like staying active has kept me at a healthy weight and with a fairly good sense of balance. There is no guarantee either way, but I would rather do what makes me happy, and I feel like it offers me some protection, albeit incomplete, from injury.

    Lenore, have you read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking?The author talks a lot about how we have a lot of trouble living with uncertainty, and that positive thinking is an attempt to convince ourselves that we can control the uncertainty. It seems to me that much of Free Range parenting is accepting that uncertainty, rather than taking draconian measures to try to rid ourselves of it.

  12. Lisa January 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    I don’t see the correlation between “free time” and “more active”. Some kids will spend many hours in organized sports, while others will have hours each day of piano practice. Similarly, some kids with lots of “free time” and fewer (or no) structured activities will run, climb, jump, ride bikes, or play in kid-organized pick-up games. Others, though, will watch tv, play video games, write computer programs, create artwork, play board games, or read. Why do people assume that an increase in “free play” has any impact on how active kids are? My own daughter (10 yrs old) spends much of her structured time playing on a soccer team, while her “free time” is often spent singing, writing, or drawing. Not completely; she has also been in a few plays, and takes a 30 minute music lesson each week, and she will go out and play at the playground or in a pickup basketball or soccer game. I think kids need both active play and free time, but I see these as two different issues (and not ones that need to be ALL of a kid’s time… sedentary activities are ok too, and organized activities are not all bad).

  13. C.J. January 13, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Of coarse kids that spend that much time training for one sport get injured more. They likely take that sport much more seriously than other kids and train harder. My kids are dancers. My 10 yr old spends 14 hrs/week at the studio and my 7 yr old spends 12 hrs/week. Why, because they want to and they love it. They do injure themselves more at dance than when they are playing. If they had their way they would spend all their time at the studio. Even when they are just playing it often involves some sort of dancing or making up shows. Stands to reason the harder you train the more likely you are to get hurt.

  14. Dany January 14, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    My 17 months old likes to gently “dive” head first from a sofa that it maybe 35cm high onto soft carpet. He actually consistently uses his arms to break his fall – which in my opinion is a fabulous skill to have and one of the first you learn in martial arts.

    People around me keep saying that inevitably he’ll “snap his spine”.

    I fell face first from my bike when I was 7 because I did not have that skill of using my arms. I wish my parents had let me “dive” off the sofa.

    Meanwhile, he’s got great space awareness and never behaves dangerously aroung height or stairs. I sill watch him all the time of course as he is so young. But it’s nice to know that if my supervision failed for a split second, he’ll most probably be just fine.

  15. Lollipoplover January 14, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    Variety is the spice of life and that goes for sports as well. Cross-training has been recommended for ages to reduce injuries- I don’t know why they had to do a study to figure this out.
    Kids playing freely should be a basic of youth, not just youth sports. Unfortunately, parents who pay thousands of dollars for their child to be the next Serena Williams may not see free play having any benefit at all. I know a few young athletes who are not allowed to play freely outside because their parents fear they may injure their precious pitching arm. Sigh.

  16. Heather January 14, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    @Lisa Jones There were 891 kids in the study, of whom 618 were injured and 273 were just in for a physical, but played enough sports to need a sport physical. Of the 891, 74 kids only played tennis, and a further 50 played tennis, plus presumably other sports.

    It’s still a small study, but bigger than 74 kids. I presume the number of tennis players got mentioned because that was the largest group of single-sport players.

    I’d guess any cross-training would help. You are not going to get kids to do pilates or something else that adults might do to balance their bodies eg strengthening their stomach muscles and their backs so that they don’t end up hunched. But if kids play at something that incidentally strengthens the paired muscles for the ones they need in their sport, then it will help.

    My old pilates teacher used to wince every time he saw the body builders in the gym; they had nearly all allowed their muscles to develop in a very unbalanced way, and one of my other teachers plays tennis a lot in summer, and has to adjust her pilates and yoga practice as a consequence.


  17. Donna January 14, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    “You are not going to get kids to do pilates ”

    Well why not? I’m not saying that the average kid needs pilates, wants to do pilates or even knows what pilates is. But see no reason that a tennis player would balk at the suggestion to avoid injury simply because s/he is young. I’ve seen football players take dance classes to perfect their game so I don’t think pilates is a big stretch.

    This “study” highlights the fact that studies fit data to what they are looking to prove. Its results say absolutely nothing about free play. All it proved is that people who play a lot of tennis get more tennis injuries than people who don’t. I don’t need a study to tell me that. I used to play tennis regularly, but casually, on the weekends. I think I twisted my ankle once doing so. Serena Williams I guarantee has had many more tennis injuries than I.

    It doesn’t even remotely answer the free play since it doesn’t address the kids who played other sports as well as tennis. It appears that they had less injury too. So kids can spend every single minute in a structured activity

  18. Donna January 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    and still have less injury just by varying their activities.

    I’m not knocking free play, I just don’t think this study proved anything about free play.

  19. C.J. January 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    @Heather- My kids actually do pilates. My 10 yr old started doing them to help her core stregnth. My 7 yr old does because big sister does and she wants to do everything her sister does. Pilates have helped them a lot with their dance and helped stregnthen the spots that were not as deleloped as the rest of their muscles.

  20. Andy January 14, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    @Heather Sport clubs usually make children to do pilates, stretching, push ups, sit ups and other “boring” activities. I’m not saying that they are the most popular part of the training, but they happen in all sport clubs I encountered.

    Especially tennis requires additional exercises besides strictly tennis related, because the hand holding racket tend to grow way stronger then the other one. That is even more unhealthy for kids then for adults, so not doing them would be a bit irresponsible.

    If it is not possible to make some kid to spend a little time with pilates or other potentially boring activity, I do not think that it is possible to teach him a lot in anything. Learning works better if the kid is engaged, finds it fun and so on, but it never is only engaging fun all the time. Some parts are always boring.


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