Let Us Play – The Importance of FUN! – by Owen Mooney

By Owen Mooney – Special Olympics Ireland National Coach and Sports Development Coordinator

Former Rockland GAA New York Coach, Ulster GAA Physical Literacy Coach and Ulster Ladies Football Provincial Development Officer

[Tweet @MooneyOwen or Email [email protected]]

Children are incredible. Children are hilarious. Children are resilient. Children are mischievous. Children love to play. But does everyone not love to play, no matter what age they are; I know I do.


I recently put up the below post on Twitter.

#FUN & #Learning in my opinion are a great double act for children and people of all ages in my experience throughout #Education and as a #Player and #Coach one without the other is a sure-fire way towards disengagement and a lack of motivation & development 


Twitter is a wonderful resource; if used correctly. We all know the pitfalls of twitter, the fake news and all the trolling that happens. However, I love it thanks to the opportunities it presents to communicate with players, coaches, directors, researchers, professors and more experienced practitioners than my little old self.

From this I had a comment from Dr Andrew Abraham (@AndrewAbraham11) from Leeds Beckett University that included the picture below regarding the work of Dr Amanda J. Visek (@ajvisek) from George Washington University. During the comments Reed Maltbie (@Coach-Reed), Richard Cheetham (@twowheelprof) and Neil McCarthy (@NeilMcCarthy74) weighed into the conversation.  It gives me a buzz when people of this calibre start to communicate on topics that I am passionate about. When it comes to coaching children I sometimes talk about FUN, Learning, Expression, Freedom, Play, Development, Questioning, Communication, Creativity, Imagination and Unstructured/Structured Play.

Having the above experts discuss their thoughts and research showed that FUN plays a part but there are a lot more elements that are more important that just having FUN and I am very much looking forward to reading Dr. Visek’s research when it’s complete.


It was a lot easier to play when I was younger. I didn’t have a mobile phone, tablet or all the other distractions we all have now, not just children. I feel it’s so important now, more than ever, for us adults to make sure children have the opportunity to play during coaching sessions or at home with parents or in schools with teachers and support staff.

I love sport and love everything about sport. Without it I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have come my way. We are all Child Educators. Everyone over the age of 18 is an adult therefore in my opinion are educators. Children mirror and mimic what they see, both good and not so good. To illustrate this, I always used a picture during all plenary coach, parent, teacher education workshops/courses I was tutoring on that said, “Children are like cement – whatever falls on them makes an impression.” The graphic that I used was a generic image. During a parent education workshop with Rockland GAA Club who I worked with in New York, one of the parents, who is a dear friend and was a huge support to me during my time away, said that she had a similar picture of her son and her father from a few years ago. I thought ok let’s see it. When I saw it, I asked her…no sorry I told her I was using it from now on, I wasn’t going to give her a chance to say no!

The picture above is important to me now in that it’s a reminder of not only my time in New York but also of the important role all adults play in the development of children, especially in sport. We have such a huge role to play in their development and they have the same influence on us. I think it’s a beautiful illustration of the relationship between child and adult.


iCoachKids is a learner-centred, community-based, collaborative project that aims to create innovative learning and development opportunities for those coaching children and young people in sport and in life.

I had the privilege of speaking at the 3rd iCoachKids International Coaching Conference at the University of Limerick last weekend (June 14th & 15th). This was the second time I had contributed to this fantastic initiative and one that is only getting bigger. There were 328 delegates from over 20 different countries in attendance and it was great to see so many familiar faces from Ireland.

The mix of key note speakers from world renowned researchers was a joy to behold – Prof Dan Gould, Kris van der Haegen (@KrisVDHaegen), Dr Marie Murphy (@MarieHMurphy), Prof Nicolette Schipper–van Veldhoven, Prof Catherine Woods (@CatherineBWoods), Dr Richard Bailey (@DrDickB) and last but not least Dr Sergio Lara Bercial (DrSergioLaraUK), Director of the iCoachKids Project and Family.

I learned so much and I am still processing all my notes and reflecting on what I saw, heard and experienced. Each of the speakers I attended explained their research and the research of others into manageable pieces of information from a theoretical and practical standpoint.

The most enjoyable experience from the conference and any conference I have ever spoken at or been to is the opportunity to network, share and learn from everyone attending. Learning can happen be in the actual sessions and/workshops (hopefully people learned at least one new trick from me ????) or by talking to each other over a coffee break, lunch break or over a bite to eat makes a huge difference to how we reflect on our coaching, our attitudes, our philosophy and our beliefs in what we want from coaching.

Just like we need to all play more, I think we need to talk, communicate and network more as coaches; as the saying goes “Sharing is Caring”. So, I encourage all of us to share more often so that we can all learn something new.

If you have not took advantage of the resources from the iCoachKids Project, please do so. Whether you are a child, youth and/or adult coach you will find so much to help you in your coaching and it’s completely and absolutely FREE

For more information and to take part in the MOOC’s please visit https://www.icoachkids.eu/


I am not a parent, but I do have experience of coaching at all ages, with my main enjoyment coming from working with the “tiny tots” 3-6-year-old crew.

I been a coach education tutor for the GAA for over 10 years. The subject of Play and its importance has come up a lot more in recent years.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Play is defined as –  Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose

This definition is very self-explanatory and does exactly what it says on the tin. However, I wonder if Rory McIlroy, Lionel Messi or players from Liverpool or Dublin GAA still think they are engaging in play, even though it is for a serious purpose. I think no matter what stage people are in their sporting career or in life, play is vital.

The picture below from Richard Cheetham (@twowheelprof) is a great representation on what play is.

Everything in the above picture is for everyone, children, youths, adults, amateurs, professionals, coaches, parents, teachers…absolutely everyone. It encapsulates what play can do and its influence. Play is not unstructured; it can be but play can be structured by making sessions FUN and enjoyable, ensuring players learn new skills, are challenged in a sporting sense, allowed to improve, are treated with respect, are given ownership within the session, emotionally connected with tasks, are encouraged to give their best and are able to develop physically, socially and emotionally.

As adults it is important we play as much as the children. We can learn so much from play and we can learn so much from children. They constantly surprise me and there is nothing better than developing a child and seeing a smile on their face. For me that is far more important than winning. Development through play is imperative. For some adults that is very difficult as it brings them out of their comfort zone, they must relent control. What I say to that is ‘Have A Go and You Will Know’. Try it, see how it feels, think about what you liked, found enjoyable and what you feel you could improve on.

I love to Play and having FUN. I feel both are very important for overall learning and development. As a coach I try to incorporate both into my coaching, no matter what age group I am working with. If players feel they are learning, are developing their skills and have a positive team culture they are more likely to come back week after week and give their best to improve as a person and as a player.

So, for children, youth and adults; We all play. We all love to play. We can all learn to play. We all must encourage play every single day.

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  • Your friend Aoife Lennon
    Posted at 17:28h, 19 June Reply

    Well done Owen first class read ????

  • Avril Boland
    Posted at 17:41h, 19 June Reply

    Hi, great article thanx. I have a quick query for you if you have the time. My family and I have recently moved to America from Wexford. We have been fortunate enough to join a wonderful local GAA club. My son is playing u8 hurling and football however there is a huge variance in standard between them and all other teams and they are getting well beaten in all their matches. There are a limited number of teams they can play so we repeatedly meet the same crew but how does a coach or parent make these matches fun for the young chaps when they are always up against stronger competition. Thanks

  • Dympna Armitage
    Posted at 22:57h, 20 June Reply

    Well done Owen a great read, great advise get out and play

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