The Beauty of Free Play

by Steve Boyle


While I've worn many coaching hats, one of my most recent ones was as a volunteer assistant with my daughter’s travel basketball team. On the court, I experienced lots of memorable moments, but none unexpected, even as the girls progressed through their tumultuous middle school years.  But what I experienced off the court, watching three much younger kids—not even on the team—proved to be a revelation. 

From the beginning, these children--siblings of three players--showed up at nearly every practice for all four years that I coached. In all honesty, I first found Ruby, Jack and Quinn terribly distracting. There I was— trying to teach the intricacies of a pick and roll—when all of a sudden a ball they were playing with on the sidelines would fly into our drill.  But, this past winter, I realized something incredible. Those three children played unabashed and uninhibited. And as they advanced from first grade to fourth grade, this pattern of play continued.  

Jack, Ruby and Quinn playing with "the team" at our last practice.

They had the safety of caring adults in the gym with them, but they had nearly two hours together, twice a week, to play anything their imaginations allowed them.  I saw them make up rules to made-up games, negotiate conflict, and laugh with pure joy.  I saw them seek approval from each other when they did "something cool"—like juggling a basketball with their foot, soccer-style or do a chin-up on the lacrosse goal, tucked away in a gym corner.  In short, I saw three children engaged in free play. While they had to try not to disrupt our practices, they were absolutely “free” from adult interference.  Imagine: children playing, with adults not getting in the way!

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play Report advocates the reintroduction of free play as a strategy towards “reimagining youth sports.”   In their report they introduce the “Free Play” suggestion with this great example:

Michael Jordan had a "love of the game" clause inserted into his NBA contract that allowed him to play basketball whenever and wherever he wanted. Why? He understood the value of pick-up play. He grew up in an era when so much of a child's activity in sports was in settings comprised of not much more than a space, some friends, and a ball.

For generations of Americans, casual play-from the sandlot to the recreation center-was a foundational experience, a kid-directed zone that rewarded expression, fostered social skills, and demanded some degree of inclusion. It also delivered hours of physical activity, without that ever being the goal....

To read the rest of this section of the report, go to:

I couldn’t agree more with Project Play. 

We can learn from watching on the sidelines or by reading between the lines of what kids are telling us.  Like a guy with a new cool camera turning everyday objects into images of beauty, I am happily starting to see the real significance of things right before my eyes.  I will miss my 8th grade girls. And I am sad as much as anything that they (and, of course, my daughter Siobhan) went and grew up on me.  I also will miss Ruby, Jack and Quinn. And I am most grateful for their parting gift--a newly found appreciation for the beauty of free play!  


Steve Boyle, M.S.Ed., LSC is a former Division 1 athlete who has made it his life’s work to see that kids grow up experiencing healthy, sport-centered activities that benefit the whole child.  He has coached thousands of children on both coasts in sports ranging from soccer to lacrosse to basketball to track and field.  The organization that he and his wife (also a former Division 1 athlete) created, 2-4-1 Sports, was recently cited by the Aspen Institute in Washington DC as one of eight model programs in the United States.  For more information, go to

Editor's Note: Here's a report that highlights 2-4-1’s sport-centered approach to getting kids to diversify their athletic endeavors. 

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