For the past several years my children have been enrolled in our local recreation department’s soccer league. I was never all that crazy about the idea of organized sports – not the sports themselves but the commitment for such required in this day and age. But the league was close to home, and seemed fairly laid back, and the kids really wanted to play, so we did – with great hesitation each and every time.
The second year we registered, three of our four kids were eligible. Because they were in three different age groups, practices were scheduled a combined five nights a week. Because of this same age spread, games would be on Saturday from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. – with breaks in between but not enough of a break to warrant going home. Not really being all that eager (or willing) to dedicate our entire family schedule to the pursuit of recreational soccer, I approached the league coordinator and asked him if it would be possible to switch things around to a more condensed schedule. Several other parents warned me ahead of time that I’d have to make up a really good excuse in order to switch, but instead I laid it all out on the table as it was. I told him we liked to make sure that we had some family time at home during the week. I talked to him about family dinners and homework and time to just be together. He loved the idea and immediately set to work figuring out schedules and teams and made it so that we, as a family, could play soccer and eat our dinner too.
This year, rather than leave the soccer schedule to chance, I arranged with another parent to share soccer coaching duties for two teams. By coaching the teams ourselves, we could schedule the practices according to our families’ needs, making sure that soccer was a part of family life, rather than the whole. Because the fields were so close to home, we could bike there all together, bring supper with us, and make soccer a family pursuit as opposed to yet another series of individual obligations. It seemed like a flawless plan.
About two weeks after sign up, we got a call stating that the recreation department was paring back and so our center would join up with another center across town. This meant that we’d be driving, across town, rather than biking several blocks from home. If there’s one thing we’ve figured out about family life, it’s that driving MORE does not a happy family make. There is nothing even remotely peaceful about loading everyone into the van, several nights a week, for a drive across town, in evening traffic, to something with a definitive start time. Much to the kids dismay, but total understanding, we decided to bail on organized soccer altogether.
That same week a friend called with an idea. Her husband was interested in playing a little soccer with their kids and a few others once a week and wanted to know if we wanted to join them. Nothing formal, just a few families, playing the game of soccer, learning the rules and the skills of the game. We would meet at a local park for a weekly game of co-ed, multi-generational soccer. The timing was ideal and the plan even more so.
The kids were not one hundred percent sold on the idea of playing in this informal way but were willing to give it a shot. The first week, they were hooked. They loved the fact that they all got to play on the same team. They loved too that the parents played with them rather than just standing on the sidelines yelling at them what to do. And we all loved that it was with friends. After practice we crossed the street to our friends’ house for a communal supper until it was time to head home for bed.
This way of playing sports feels like a whole new chapter in our pursuit of building more family connection. Rather than scatter to different teams when we hit the field, the kids are learning how to work together as siblings and they are visibly enjoying the camaraderie that it brings. As a parent I love the fact that this way of playing feels like collaboration between adults and children as opposed to the standard hierarchy of coach/pupil. The parents are teaching skills by playing the game, not by standing on the sidelines shouting out instructions. Through this model, the kids see that “play” is a life long pursuit – not something reserved merely for childhood. And, in addition to getting time to run around and play, we all get a weekly commitment to hang out with some of our dearest friends – friends who we sometimes didn’t see for months at a stretch, for our busy lives and different schools and schedules.
Sure there is a place for organized leagues and teams for kids if that works for you and your family. If however, you aren’t quite ready to make that commitment, or if you’re trying to figure out a way to make game time a little less invasive on your family time, I highly recommend scheduling in some family game time. With friends of course. And picnic suppers too.
Bernadette Noll is a writer and mother of four and co-founder of Slow Family Living, along with Carrie Contey, PhD in pre-natal and peri-natal psychology.