Backyard Sports Knocking It Out of the Park
“Marco!” “Polo.” These two phrases comprised a lot of my summers in Australia as a kid, spending hours in the pool with friends and siblings playing Marco Polo, the game of tag allegedly the namesake of the Italian explorer who had no idea where he was going. I remember being exhausted and red eyed after a day in the pool, developing strategies with friends to dodge the “it” person. When it was my turn to be “it”, it was an exercise of honesty to keep the eyes closed and rely on the auditory cues to call the “fish out of water,” or tag target. In hindsight, deeper learning came from developing capacity to cope with being excluded from the rest of the group as the incumbent “it.” This call and response game was based upon communication, strategic thinking, and collaboration. What fun it was, and so flexible, with land-based options as well. Then there was the craze of Elastics, a game that seemed to evolve in rules as we played in the school yard, backyard and park. To this day, I still don’t understand the rules exactly, but do remember many negotiations in addition to many laughs.
In the land of summer in Australia it’s the time of year for backyard sports. Scanning the beaches, campgrounds, parks, streets and neighbourhoods, informal games of sports are ubiquitous. From beach cricket to soccer and touch footy, to Frisbee and Bocce, it’s on. It is meaningful activity beyond the backyard, with evidence suggesting that the benefits extend to wellbeing, connection, and self-esteem. The ritual of informal sports permeates every corner of the globe, and resonates with all ages, genders and cultures. In the slums of India, I’ve seen children create makeshift cricket bats from sticks and bowl a few in the streets. In the Kenyan slums, I have witnessed kids’ improvisation of soccer with a can and 90-year-olds playing a Bocce friendly on a Barcelona beach. In the Pacific islands, tiggy and tag rugby are popular on a patch of grass or beach. During a walk on the beach the other day, I enjoyed observing young men and women who laughed, bantered, and sweated during a social game of touch. I also came across several beach cricket and ball games enacted by whole families of multiple generations during their annual summer break. There is joy written in these relaxed and informally organised sports, and there is good reason to continue with these “backyard” rituals.
A short history of backyard sports
Many professional and international sports originated as backyard sports. For example, the third most played sport in the world, Bocce can be traced to the backyards of 5,200 B.C and it is now a federated sport. Other backyard-created games such as Pickleball, Ultimate Frisbee and Dodgeball are now some of the fastest growing professional and organised sports. Backyard games have been passed down through generations by indigenous Australians and are still played here. Examples include Edor, a chase and tag game from Aurukun and North Queensland, and Weme, a game akin to bowls from central Australia with the objective of knocking a ball out of the circle with a stone.
Self- organised creativity and rule setting in a natural environment
Outdoor, informal sports provide a range of benefits – from established psychological and physical enhancements derived from the combination of physical activity and a natural environment to accessibility due to low cost and absence of rules and prohibitive structures. Evidence suggests that informal sporting activities are now more popular than organised sports in major cities and there is commentary that supports them being more inclusive for multicultural participation through the voluntary nature of participation, and the learning associated with negotiating game rules and complex interethnic and social relationships. The democratic nature of informal leisure activities, often requiring adaption of traditional game rules to fit relevant outdoor spaces and ages also ensures that children learn life skills of negotiation, communication and creative problem solving. Lefebvre conceptualises access and use of public spaces by citizens as three interconnected dimensions including 1. Perceived space (i.e., physical) 2. Conceived space (i.e., governed by policy and planning) and 3. Lived space (i.e., the ways in which people experience and interact with the space). Informal sport and its socialisation occurring both on and off the field in an urban space such as a park or beach demonstrates the interconnection between activity and space and the importance of this for the vibrancy and culture of communities.
Economic and social value of informal sport
A recent systematic review of international and national databases covering 17,000 publications over a 15-year period revealed six key benefits of outdoor, informal sports including physical health, mental health and wellbeing, education and learning, active citizenship and diminished crime and anti-social behaviour. Several studies suggest that contact with nature through sport contributes to physical, psychological and social health and well-being, including management of health issues such as depression, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, obesity and dementia. Therapeutic benefits have also been identified ranging from recovery from crisis, reducing social isolation and strengthening community cohesion.
A range of studies therefore support mental, physical and social benefits for those participating in informal sports which are similar to benefits associated with organised sports. Moreover, informal adventure sports and increasingly popular extreme sports are associated with positive development in young people and promote participation in other regular activity, outweighing potential perceived risk in such activities. The benefits are extensive, with regular, informal activity with family and friends forming rituals that can build a sense of security, belonging and identity. Many backyard sports are not focussed upon winning but rather participation and individual skill development. This enables a sense of achievement in safe company independent of competition. The inevitable self-organisation required for backyard sports provides a sense of autonomy over how and where games are played, and rules created or negotiated.
The great outdoors and inclusion
Spaces and places are therefore important. If outdoor recreational sports are popular, then there needs to be available space to support it. Whether it is the beach, a park, an oval, a court, pool or yard, a space is required, and it needs to have no boundaries for inclusion. For example, yesterday, I saw a group ranging from 8 to 65 years old playing cricket in a local park and learned that they were comprised of families who had met at the local campground. This scenario showcases another positive attribute of informal sports- the magic that occurs on the sideline. It brings together family and bystanders, drawn by the excitement and entertainment of the game, whilst also socialising. Meals and picnics were being prepared adjacent to the game for participants to enjoy and share. This communal gathering occurring in parallel with the activity carries positive impacts for all involved, from energetic juniors to aging grandparents and onlooking strangers.
Research supports the value of space for incentivising physical activity and it is essential that these spaces continue to be planned, built, and preserved as much as possible in our communities and that the value of informal sports be recognised and measured to inform policy. Just accessibility to these spaces is essential across our communities, regardless of language, ability or financial barriers. The conviviality of informal sports, and their relaxed rules and structures enable low risk participation and integration of new immigrants, socio-economic background, and age, in turn promoting community cohesion, resilience and growth. The popularity of sport and its prevalence as an informal cultural activity in public spaces makes it a powerful tool for social integration and helps to expedite the acculturation process for migrants. Essentially, informal sport offers familiar traditions that build trust within and between migrant communities and the broader community, promoting community cohesiveness.
Unfortunately, publicly available spaces are diminishing and so it is critical that their economic and social worth are evaluated and embedded in relevant policies and urban planning alongside organised sports. A recent article argues that we must prevent social and informal sports from being squeezed out of public spaces in favour of club sports. Informal sports are an important vehicle for national health and as pathways to elite sports, and therefore warrant inclusion in sports participation policies aimed at eliciting social, health and physical benefits. The health and wellbeing potential of informal sports need to be accounted in economic assessment, requiring new conceptualisation of sport and sport policy.
Backyard to Podium
The role of siblings and parents is critical in sporting development, and backyard sport is the incubator of champions. Sibling dynamics within families can support the acquisition of champion qualities and talent development including resilience, psych-behavioural skills, emotional support and quality practice. The presence of sporting talent within families can be nurtured through backyard sport and supporting roles by parents and siblings, and in many cases, entire families have entered elite sport. There are examples of the Williams sisters, the Campbell sisters, Mayweather brothers and Chappell brothers to name a few. In our family, backyard sport in the form of Marco Polo, tiggy, cricket and footy didn’t produce champions, but did result in a mutual life-long enjoyment in sports participation from swimming, to surfing, running and surf lifesaving.
Whether a family ritual, or creative activity born out of freedom and the outdoors, backyard sports are a backbone of community life and our wellbeing. While a flying cricket ball or footy might pose some risk to bystanders, these informal, recreational activities deliver incredible value. They are accessible, inclusive, and positive for community. In times of rising obesity-related health issues and an epidemic of loneliness, any physical activity is a positive and if it is also relaxed and social in a natural environment, then all the better.