How Obstacle Courses Can Reintroduce Play to America's Kids

Long-term athletic development expert Jeremy Frisch outlines why obstacle courses are one of the best forms of 'training' for modern kids.

Kids crave movement.

They want to jump, skip, climb, sprint, crawl, dive and tumble. They want to explore what their bodies are capable of, even if it means an occasional skinned knee. They want to run around like lunatics until they're so exhausted they have to take a breather—and then do it all again. Problem is, we won't let them. Our kids are over-scheduled and overprotected. Schools have increasingly cut down on recesses and P.E. classes, and our nation's playgrounds have never been more dull. For little athletes, travel teams and private skill sessions eat up huge chunks of time and lead them to forgo movement diversity in favor of a small number of actions performed ad nauseam. The opportunities for the type of vigorous, joyous play that once defined American childhood have largely disappeared.

The result are kids who are likely less active, less happy, less confident and more physically and mentally fragile. Jeremy Frisch is one man who's pushing back. The owner of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Massachusetts, Frisch is passionate about designing training sessions that mimic the play kids now miss out on. One of his favorite tools for this goal? Obstacle courses.

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Kids crave movement.

They want to jump, skip, climb, sprint, crawl, dive and tumble. They want to explore what their bodies are capable of, even if it means an occasional skinned knee. They want to run around like lunatics until they're so exhausted they have to take a breather—and then do it all again. Problem is, we won't let them. Our kids are over-scheduled and overprotected. Schools have increasingly cut down on recesses and P.E. classes, and our nation's playgrounds have never been more dull. For little athletes, travel teams and private skill sessions eat up huge chunks of time and lead them to forgo movement diversity in favor of a small number of actions performed ad nauseam. The opportunities for the type of vigorous, joyous play that once defined American childhood have largely disappeared.

The result are kids who are likely less active, less happy, less confident and more physically and mentally fragile. Jeremy Frisch is one man who's pushing back. The owner of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Massachusetts, Frisch is passionate about designing training sessions that mimic the play kids now miss out on. One of his favorite tools for this goal? Obstacle courses.

"We were just looking for fun ways to move. It kind of hit us one day. Instead of doing one exercise, say we're running or jumping over a group of hurdles, what if we combine a Bear Crawl with it? Or what if we combine other elements?" Frisch told STACK. "We felt like it was such a fun way for the kids to learn."

When designed intelligently, obstacle courses elicit a wide variety of movement patterns and help develop physical literacy. Instead of trying to coach the minutiae of many standalone drills or exercises, something 5 to 10-year-old kids rarely have the interest or attention span for, Frisch lets his obstacles do the coaching. This hands-off approach greatly increases the fun factor and also introduces elements of self-direction and problem solving.

"The younger kids, we're doing very little coaching. They see me set it up, and while I'm setting it up, those guys are already looking at it in their own mind's eye and saying, 'How am I gonna get over that obstacle?' I don't really have to say anything," Frisch says. "You'll see kids try obstacles different ways. That's another nice thing. You get to see a whole mix of styles and approaches to each obstacle, which I really love."

Rather than prescribe certain rep ranges or rest periods, Frisch simply sets aside a block of time and lets the kids run through the obstacles as many times as they'd like. When kids are having fun with movement, they naturally exercise quite vigorously. They also don't need to be told when to take a break.

"They can go through it as fast as they want," Frisch says. "I don't prescribe any rest periods. I let them take a rest when they need it. Then they kinda figure out, OK, if I go through twice then I take a rest after—instead of running through five times in a row and getting completely wiped out, they'll run through fast maybe once or twice then take a shorter rest. Then it turns into almost interval training. They sort of self-prescribe their own reps, which is amazing." He'll often time the kids so they can compete against one another for the fastest run, but only because he's found they enjoy it.

It makes for a heart-thumping workout, something kids rarely get in modern organized sports. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that children spend only about 30 percent of their organized sport practice time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous exercise. What they might get in an hour of organized practice time they could get in 15 minutes of dashing through an obstacle course.

Frisch believes novelty is king among kids, so his course designs are constantly evolving. The amount of equipment he has at his disposal has steadily grown over the years. He integrates the athlete's feedback and strives to make obstacles that are difficult, yet not so challenging they create a bottleneck and lead kids to stand around. He often looks back to his own childhood for inspiration.

"I try to think of stuff I did as a kid that I really enjoyed—whether we did it in gym class or outside. I always want something in there where we have to climb, climb up over something. We always try to have something where the kids are on the ground rolling, whether they roll under something or we have a trapezoid mat we can put down and the kids can do somersaults and forward rolls on that," Frisch says.

"We want something where the kids are going to work on jumping over something or jumping off of something or jumping from one thing to another. We set things up a lot where kids have to jump across a certain span—there might be two mats set up and they have to jump over that space in-between. We like to do some type of level change. So if I set up a hurdle and put it at a certain height, when the kids get to that hurdle, they have to either get on the ground and crawl under it or they have to squat, duck or semi-lunge under it. Those are some of the more important parts I want in the obstacle course."

Tumbling is something kids used to be naturally exposed to via play or school in past generations, but not anymore. Frisch regularly sees teen athletes who've never been taught how to fall—an issue echoed by many coaches.

"There are kids who've never learned how to fall. They haven't played outside enough, scraped their knees and tripped and fallen and wrestled with their friends enough to learn those skills. I want to make sure when they're here, they learn those things. We integrate that stuff right away. I feel like the younger you are, the closer your base of support is to the ground. So kids feel more comfortable doing that stuff when they're younger than when they're older," Frisch says.

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If it all seems a tad dangerous, that's sort of the point. Risky play, a category of play that creates some sense of fear, is a fundamental part of childhood development. Traditionally, it's been stuff like climbing a tree, jumping over a narrow part of a stream, or bombing down a steep hill on your bike. Kids innately know how much fear they can tolerate and like to test their limits, and when they engage with fear and survive the experience, they become more resilient, confident and better-equipped to handle stress and anxiety. But in this day and age, kids have very few opportunities to do so. Frisch laments that kids in his town now have to be in third grade or older to use the monkey bars at his local playground.

"I think it's such an important part of childhood—being in activities or certain instances where you're going to have to try something you don't feel comfortable with. It's a little bit scary and a little bit exhilarating at the same time. I think the environment a lot of kids grow up in these days don't have that," says Frisch, who points to jumps between two distant platforms or walks across unstable surfaces as common risky elements he integrates into the courses.

"We're going to do some things where the kids have to get out of their comfort zones and try things out and really get over their anxiety, because I feel like, if you can slowly start to do those things when you're a kid and you get used to taking chances and you're able to try new things, you'll be much better off as an adult."

He's noticed that over time, the programming has helped make the kids more playful. Even when they're not actively participating in one of his obstacle courses, they're more inclined to climb stuff, jump off things, and play "the floor is hot lava"-type games. That type of completely self-directed and self-selected play, especially when conducted in conjunction with other kids, is irreplaceable in a child's development.

For kids ages 5-10, most of their sessions at Achieve will consist of obstacle courses and games, both conducted with almost no coaching. For kids in their pre- and early teens, he adds a bit more structure to the courses and frequently uses them as a sort of warm-up.

"I want to see a little more technical proficiency. For example, we might have some mini hurdles down, and we're gonna do a High Knee Run. Then we're gonna do a Bear Crawl, similar to what the kids would do, but I want them to be very technical with the Bear Crawl. We might put a cone on their back and I want to see them go 10 yards without the cone falling off," Frisch says.

For those interested in building obstacle courses themselves, creativity is the key to frugality. Frisch has utilized a huge array of objects in his course designs, using everything from pool noodles to exercise bands. Outside of the stuff you might find in a gym or your own garage, gymnastic mats and mini trampolines are two items he recommends investing in.

"Those foldout gymnastic mats are so versatile. You can literally do anything on them. We have a whole bunch of them here and we do everything from play games on them, kids grapple and wrestle on them, we do all our tumbling on them. It just gives you a safe space on the floor for what you're doing," Frisch says. "One of the local middle schools was getting rid of them and they gave me all their old ones. I always tell people, if you're looking around, don't buy them new. There are plenty of people that sell them very cheap."

Above all else, keep it fun—you don't need to add 10 Burpees or 20 Sit-Ups at the end of the course to make it a "better workout." Get feedback from the kids, set some stuff up, and cut them loose. If they're sweating and smiling, you know you're on the right track. For more ideas on obstacle courses as well as general long-term athletic development, follow @JeremyFrisch on Twitter.

Photo Credit: @JeremyFrisch

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Topics: YOUTH SPORTS | OBSTACLE COURSE | ATHLETIC TRAINING | ATHLETICISM