As children enter middle childhood, they spend less time in unstructured free play and more time in structured activities, such as school- or church-sponsored activities and organized sports practices or competitions (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001). In the last decade, the United States has seen a dramatic rise in the number of children involved in organized sports, especially girls. Approximately 46 million children and adolescents participate in some type of organized sport (Griffin, 1998). Despite the increase in the number of children involved, not all children participate to the same extent. For example, as girls move into adolescence, their participation typically declines. Low-income children spend less time in organized sports than middle-class children, often due to the expenses involved.

A variety of physical and psychological benefits may result from sports participation. The multiple physical benefits of systematic exercise outlined in the previous section of this chapter also apply to children who participate in organized sports. In addition, individual athletes (e.g., swimmers, runners, or skiers) learn the value of practice, self-discipline, and time and effort commitments. They also may gain feelings of competency and self-worth, have higher levels of self-esteem, and report enjoying themselves (Pugh, Wolff, DeFrancesco, Gilley, & Heitman, 2000). Participating in a sport increases skill building and, in many peer groups, is a characteristic of popularity and status among peers. As a member of a team (e.g., soccer, baseball, football)—in addition to the advantages gained from individual participation—children learn about cooperation, perspective taking, and the benefits of teamwork. They also have opportunities to spend time with friends or to make new friends (Ewing, Gano-Overway, Branta, & Seefeldt, 2002). Studies show that if children enjoy their participation, they are much more likely to stay involved and to continue this activity for longer periods of time—sometimes into adulthood (Perkins, Jacobs, Barber, & Eccles, 2004; Thompson, Humbert, & Mirwald, 2003).

Disadvantages of participating in organized sports include acute injuries or—less often—permanent injuries to vulnerable bones and joints (Maffulli, Baxter-Jones, & Grieve, 2005). Also, children may be encouraged to continue to play or compete in less-than-favorable weather conditions. describes how children’s bodies heat and cool themselves differently from adults’ and, if not properly monitored, how children could experience stress resulting in illness or death.

Some developmentalists worry that time spent in organized sports may reduce the amount of time spent in unstructured free play, which encourages imagination and self-motivation. Others suggest that participation in organized sports encourages a mindset of competition and winning. A survey of 10,000 youth athletes found that children stopped playing a sport due to lack of interest, lack of fun, poor coaching, and an overemphasis on winning. Their main sources of stress were criticisms (i.e., “being yelled at”) from coaches, parents, fans, and teammates as well as performing poorly in competition (Ewing & Seefeldt, 1990).