November 12, 2005

We generally think of play as functionless or else actively escapist: distraction, diversion from the "real" world of work-linked learning: yet unstructured play is no less learning for being less or even non-goal-oriented. In smaller towns, while growing up, sports remain more actively "play" than in the highly-structured leagues and practice schedules common to the fields and rinks of larger cities.

For N. American hockey and baseball at least, one study (to be published in Journal of Sports Sciences) has now found a distinct correlation; with proportionately the most professional male baseball and hockey players -- almost three times as many as would be expected in proportion to male population alone -- coming from places of between 50,000 and 100,000 population: large enough to have the facilities, small enough to allow less-rigidly scheduled access to those facilities, perceived safe enough to allow children to play in the yards and the streets and thus to develop on their own their natural aptitudes -- in play. In contrast, only half as many professional male baseball and hockey players as would otherwise be expected come from larger cities (of above 500,000 population): far below the expected pool of talent.

The same study also shows a link with birth date, with professional athletes much more likely have birth dates in the first half of the year. Two straightforward possibilities here: first that although children and later professional players (at the initial recruitment phases) are sorted by age, children born closer to the beginning of the year will have had almost a year's more physical development than children born toward its end; and second that children born near the beginning of the year in a four-seasons country in the northern hemisphere will have acquired crawling and walking skills by the time summer arrives. (Auzzies and Kiwis: you now have a point of comparison and potential contrast :D)

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