Recently-especially over the past thirty years-there have been significant changes in the way middle class American children play. Whereas children and adolescents used to spend a good deal of time engaged in unsupervised play and games, today sports are much more likely to be pursued through organized private sports leagues.
The entry of these organized leagues into the world of older children's play has changed the nature of that play. For one thing, these days, among younger adolescents, the level of play in sports such as basketball and soccer is noticeably higher than in the past. That's the result of an explosion in the amount of instruction and coaching available to aspiring players.
Although some of the adult involvement in these leagues is on a voluntary basis, for the most part club sports like volleyball or hockey cost money, often lots of money. Children's sports have entered the economy, and this has changed their character: they have become consumer goods and services that must be purchased. And often there is a genuine correlation between the product and the cost-to excel, children need good (often high priced) coaches, they need to travel nationwide to compete with other top athletes, etc.
One unfortunate consequence of these changes is that in many cases children are pushed too hard on the physical level, they are trained to use their bodies in ways that aren't developmentally appropriate. A striking example from Mark Hyman's book Until it Hurts: These days little league pitchers often learn to throw curve balls, a pitch that puts considerable strain on still-growing arms. That may be part of the reason that so few of the players who are stars in the Little League World Series ever make it to the major leagues. And baseball is by no means the only sport where these sorts of things are happening. In a number of youth sports it is increasingly common for children of high school and even middle school age to undergo major surgeries to address over-use injuries.
So, why did our society substitute this new more expensive and dangerous form of play for the older one? The answer has to do with what I have called the culture of entertainment. We love to be entertained, and the result is that entrepreneurs have a financial incentive to convert as much of life as possible into entertainment. The fact is that intensely competitive children's sports are hugely entertainment for the parents of these children. And if you happen to be the parent of a child with genuine talent or skill, it's even better: The child can become a small scale celebrity, and the parent can bask in the glow of junior's success.
The adults who coach the teams and sell the equipment and run the tournaments promote youth sports in part because they can make money in these ways. The adults who get to watch entertaining competitions starring their children are happy to participate by spending the thousands of dollars needed to support this system. It's a win-win for these adults. But sometimes it isn't a win for the children who are pressured to perform and may even end up with painful injuries that limit their activity for the rest of their lives. If you asked the kids, many of them might be just as happy putting together pick-up games at the playground.