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Let Them PLAY!

Let Them PLAY!

By Todd Durkin, MA, CSCS

I used to love dodge ball as a kid. Running, throwing, catching, ducking, and jumping are all part of this great game. Man, what a fun game.

And then there was tag. Such a basic game. But boy-o-boy, was it ever fun! Either tag someone or don’t let yourself get tagged. Simple. Awesome. There are so many variations; you could play forever.

I remember sweating so much playing these games as a kid, I’d exhaust myself. But it didn’t feel like work, and it never felt like “exercising,” because it was PLAY!!!

Last week, I had a GREAT time hosting a PE “field trip” at a local park for my son Brady’s 1st grade class. We were joined by a 5th grade class for the 45-minute PE session. Fortunately, I also had the assistance of my wife, Melanie, who teaches PE at Southwestern College. She was there to assist along with one of our coaches from Fitness Quest 10, Charleston DeLa Cruz.

I wanted the kids to have FUN. I wanted them to PLAY. So that’s what we did. We played games. “Old-school” games like tag, medic-tag, dodge ball, and kickball. Yes, I said dodge ball and tag.

You see, dodge ball and tag have been “outlawed” by many school districts in America. It makes me sick to even think about it. This is not the fault of the teachers. There are plenty of great PE teachers doing the important work of helping our kids to be strong and fit and healthy (I know Mrs. Blower and Mrs. Fields at my kids’ school are fantastic).

But our school districts are in trouble. Financial trouble. Jobs are being slashed. PE is getting cut. Some schools only offer PE once a week. Some programs have been completely eliminated. And there are schools with active PE programs that don’t allow their teachers to play games like dodge ball or tag. Games they call “unsafe” or too great a “liability” to PLAY.

I’m fired up about this! Kids NEED to play these games. They teach gross motor skills (running, jumping, ducking, and cutting), and manipulative skills (throwing and catching). Please don’t give me any excuses about how these games create hurt feelings or they aren’t constructive. Baloney.

Games like dodge ball and tag teach kids about life. Sometimes you get hit. Sometimes you have to do everything in your power to avoid getting hit. But when you get hit and you go down, you have to get back up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game after you lose. It’s OK to have games with “winners” and “losers.” Get over it!

Games like dodge ball and tag teach kids to COMPETE.  And there is nothing wrong with teaching a kid to COMPETE nowadays.

I am not saying we should turn PE into a free-for-all “just play games” experience or “best” kids should always win experience. I am talking about PLAYING games to get immersed in the activity of PLAY.

Because as long you have the careful eye of a great teacher/instructor to make sure the games are constructive (teach fundamentals, progressions, organize classes by appropriate levels, etc.) and safe (i.e. use soft, light, foam balls for dodge ball), then there is nothing wrong with these games.  Let me correct that. These games are GREAT.

Games like dodge ball and tag are FUN. When I taught the 1st and 5th graders last week, I had the pleasure of watching 50 kids running, laughing, smiling, and having fun (see my video highlight). Not one kid got hurt. We call it play because it’s fun.


Not convinced? Let me convince you. For those worried about danger, the far greater liability is cutting physical education altogether and taking away daily PLAY time. Estimates show that only 3.8% of elementary schools provide daily PE. Yet the Surgeon General recommends that kids engage in 60 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week.

Here’s the true liability we face in facts:

  • More than 1/3 of all American children and teens (approximately 25 million kids) today are considered overweight or obese, which is nearly triple the rate in 1963.
  • Childhood obesity is now the #1 health concern among US parents, topping drug use and smoking.
  • Childhood obesity can easily lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and elevated cholesterol.
  • Psychologically, obesity can lead to low self-esteem, negative body image, and depression.
  • Fitness test scores are dropping dramatically as kids are getting weaker and less fit.

Folks, we are headed down the wrong path and we need to do something about it. I need to do something about it. YOU need to do something about it.

All available evidence and research shows that children who are physically active and fit perform better in the classroom. Makes sense. You know it and I know it. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to make the correlation of sound body, sound mind.

So what’s the answer?

  • Fight school district decisions to cut PE. It is not OPTIONAL—we NEED it!
  • Volunteer or assist at your local school if the program needs volunteers (You may not need to have a child at the school to do this.).
  • Thank and praise the thousands of PE teachers who ARE doing a great job blending “curriculum-based” activities with PLAY to create memorable experiences that inspire kids to life-long physical fitness. Thank you teachers!!!
  • Trainers: create an “old-school PE” class in your studio, health club, or facility to bring back the love. Play your favorite games.
  • And this summer, PLAY like mad. Let the kids PLAY everyday. And whether it is structured or unstructured play, loosen up and have some FUN with them.

I challenge you to get outside with the kids in your neighborhood and resurrect the days when you PLAYED dodge ball, tag, and kickball yourself. It will be good for your own mind, body, and spirit. I promise.

Yours in PLAY,


PS.  Please go to my Facebook LIKE page and post your thoughts, comments, and ACTION steps from this article. Share a story of a favorite “old-school” game you remember and loved.

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