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A Longitudinal Study of the Effect of Organized Physical Activity on Free Active Play


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: September 2018 - Volume 50 - Issue 9 - p 1772–1779
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001633

Purpose The relationship between organized sport participation and positive youth development is well established. However, overinvolvement in sport and organized physical activity has been identified as having a potentially negative effect. Overscheduling and its impact on free play is one concern, given the importance of free play to overall health and development. Currently, it is not known if greater participation in organized sport has a positive or negative effect on discretionary free play in children and youth.

Methods The Physical Health and Activity Study Team study was a 5-yr, longitudinal cohort study that followed 2278 fourth grade children (ages 9–10 yr). Organized sport and free play was assessed in the fall of each school year from fifth to eighth grades using self-report questionnaires.

Results Using mixed-effects modeling, we found that higher participation in organized sport was associated with increased participation in free play over time (coefficient = 0.20, P < 0.001). Although this effect was independent of age and socioeconomic status, we did find that boys with high levels of organized participation reported the highest levels of free play overall.

Conclusions Possible explanations for this association are related to the role sport might play in supporting physical literacy and the development of fundamental movement skills, allowing children to participate in more active free play pursuits. It might also be the case that active children simply seek out both organized and unorganized physical activity opportunities during this developmental period. Limitations and implications for further research and policy are discussed.

1Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, CANADA;

2Infant and Child Health Lab, Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, CANADA;

3Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, CANADA; and

4Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, CANADA

Address for correspondence: John Cairney, Ph.D., Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto, 55 Harbord St, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 2W6; E-mail:

Submitted for publication November 2017.

Accepted for publication April 2018.

© 2018 American College of Sports Medicine