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- Facilitating a play environment

We seem to be doing too much training and too little playing.
TRAINING is such a serious term. Look at the definitions and our old mates TEACHING and INSTRUCTION pop up again. It’s where Professionals work on their craft, add effort, discipline and put in ‘the hard yards’ to get ahead of the rest.
It seems obvious then, that the term does not fit with Kids Sport, yet it is culturally accepted as the norm and no one thinks twice. Americans use the term ‘Practice’, which at least encourages Competencies (Self-Determination Theory of Motivation, Deci & Ryan, 2000) yet can still refer to the sense of ‘hard work’.
What if we could change TRAINING ENVIRONMENTS into PLAY ENVIRONMENTS? We could see huge Learning opportunities for nurturing Potential whilst ensuring Sport is what it was meant to be - a Fun and Joyful Experience, not a Serious and Labouring Endeavour.
Even in Professional Contexts, many of the best players reference their own best performances coming from a sense of ‘fun’ and ‘childlike’.
Cruyff FunMessi and fun
Speaking of Messi, in a previous post  “Why Messi and Neymar are an Endangered Species” we looked how current sporting cultures can be in danger of squashing self-expression if environments are too controlled and over-coached. Though this is the common expectation of TRAINING ENVIRONMENTS rather than the freedom and fun of PLAY ENVIRONMENTS.
Understanding the power of PLAY
For the majority of adults, play and work are completely separate; for children, it is one and the same.

This is the crux of a never ceasing problem; many do not view PLAY as important. They do not see the connection between PLAYING and LEARNING.

Could this be why, sadly, children today are slowly but surely losing opportunities for precious and critically important experiences?Susan Shepardson c/o

Play:Priceless is a worthy read on the history, benefits and warnings against those who think play “is unimportant and pales in comparison to academic instruction.” It challenges and raises awareness:

“Do you believe children are learning whilst engaging in free-play?”

Our reference for an organic play experience is in the playgrounds, streets and backyards. Kids organising their own teams, owning their rules, just owning it. Nature is then interrupted when an adult is in charge;

REFLECTION TIME: If the most powerful form of learning is through play and empowerment of learners, what does it look like to bring it into organised sessions that we as Coaches have to facilitate?

Should we just walk away and leave them to it? Perhaps! But what if we could carefully uphold principles and values that uphold the Learner’s needs and rights. (See Player Rights Charter)

Then we can be confident of providing a deliberate learning experience for our players.




    Some coaches prefer to present a professional, clean looking environment. They like to direct and control each and every aspect of the session. What if players were given responsibility to warm themselves up, be involved in the set-up and pack-up and direction of the session? The more space for initiative to taken by players, the more ownership and collaboration is experienced.

    The risks become being perceived by onlookers as presenting messy, unorganised and wasting time. But let’s refer again to the street environment. It’s an organic expression. So is it the experience we value or the presentation?


    Often as a leader talking in a group, we expect everyone’s undivided attention. What if as we speak, the learners way of processing is to discuss with their neighbour or put their thoughts forward? Can we relax our grip on the group dynamics and move from ‘instruction time’ to ‘discussion time’? Yes, we need to be aware of time and may not use it every session, but it becomes powerful for engagement if facilitated well.

  • #3 “FREE PLAY!”

    At some point in the session, (at the start is ideal during organisation and preparations, or concluding the session) allow a space for free expression.

    Be mindful when introducing this to some groups, the older they are, the more awkward they may be and can be seen standing around. They may need prompting, “Make up a game” or “What are you playing?”

    It’s this self-regulating that creates a powerful first or last impression of the playful learning experience.


    Another powerful magnet for engagement; Give learners the opportunity to input into game design before you add your own. “Do we need to change any rules?” or  “How can we make this game harder/easier?” 


    The more decisions the players can make, the more their awareness and perception is awakened.

    How many instructions do we give that could have been either a question or not said at all and waited patiently for a player to act? This can be time consuming in the short term, but in a long term approach we know the benefits that can be reaped through on-going experience of empowering learners to make decisions.


    Once there is evidence of confidence and collaboration in the group, every now and then there may be an opportunity to join in as a participant in the PLAY experience.

    This needs to be done with care in a Kids Sport Context as some adults can be unaware of their dominance and take away from the learners rather than add to the experience.

    Be aware the players will want to pass it to you, and you potentially have more influence on the game. But there are benefits if the players welcome you. You can help a less confident player, model certain behaviours and promote a positive and respectful attitude to other learners.


It’s fascinating to see kids in the playground making their own games then go to training and waiting for the instructions of the coach.

The culture in organised sport and education has been shaped to rely on the leader to ‘tell’ not ‘ask’. To establish a playful culture will take time and consistency of each of these values.


Due to time, you may not use all these 7 considerations in every session, but the more opportunities we give for players to express themselves, we will see creativity, diversity and playfulness come alive afresh in our organised environments.

Try them out in your PLAY ENVIRONMENT! 


2 Comments on “From TRAINING to PLAYING”

  1. Pingback: The PE Playbook - November 2016 Edition - drowningintheshallow

  2. Pingback: A Facilitators Framework: Let them PLAY - Game Play Learn

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