Children begin playing football with no emotional attachment to the game. They need to have an experience that makes them want to come back. An experience that makes them want to play independent of adults. In our desire to provide football for children, it is easy to forget this. While our approach to football has become more organised and structured, the opportunities for children to play spontaneous or street football have become fewer and fewer. Many children’s first contact with the game is through organised sessions at a designated place and time.
A child will make almost any environment their playground once given the opportunity. In playgrounds, children learn to assess different situations, predict outcomes, take risks and develop confidence in their own abilities. They instinctively seek out opportunities to play. It is the football coach’s responsibility to respond by creating an environment that intrigue, excite and stimulate. In such football environments, children are able to explore both themselves and the world through the game. The coach must also create the right balance between preserving the child’s sense of freedom and ensuring learning takes place.
The French philosopher René Descartes once said: “I think, therefore I am.” Perhaps he could have said: “I play, therefore I am”. It is through play that children learn and it is through play that children consolidate what they have learnt. Play by definition is intrinsically motivated. It is the child’s way of doing things. It is simply what they do.
Play comes naturally to a child, just like sleeping or eating. The need to play remains throughout our lives. But we give it new names. A footballer playing at the top of his game might say he is “in the zone“. Scientists and artists engrossed in their work talk about “the flow“. It is still just PLAY.
And Play is our starting point. It is where we begin.