Connor Minto was shot in the head, leaving him with a .22 pellet lodged in his forehead, just above his left eye, as he waited on the sidelines to play in a football match.
The 11-year-old was a substitute in an under-12s game between Chester-le-Street Town and Coxhoe, played at the Hermitage Academy when he was injured around midday on Saturday.
Detective Constable Andy Froggatt told the Newcastle Chronicle: "Connor was standing next to the nets with some other boys watching a nearby rugby game when he felt what he thought was a stone hit his head.
"He ran to his dad because he could feel blood and his dad could see that a .22 pellet was lodged in Connor's forehead just above his left eye.
"This was a very serious incident. The photos clearly show how nasty the injury was, but it could have been much worse if the pellet had hit the Connor's eye.
"His dad took him to the RVI hospital where the pellet was removed and he received stitches.
"Thankfully Connor is recovering well now, but he was extremely upset by what happened.
"We are appealing to anyone who was at the football or rugby games that were being played on Saturday and witnessed the incident to contact police.
"We'd also like to remind people about the dangers of using air weapons in public places. If anyone needs any advice on this subject, particularly in relation to the laws around children using air weapons, please contact police."
Three 14-year-old boys from the Chester-le-Street area have been arrested in connection with the incident and bailed pending further inquiries.
His mother, Kerry Minto, said her son didn't initially understand what had happened, thought he was going to die.
She told the Mirror: "He felt like he had been hit by a stone so he turned to his friend and asked him what had happened.
"His friend said told him he had a bullet in his head. At that point he didn't know it was a pellet, so he told us he thought he was going to die.
"Physically he has recovered from the incident but mentally he is terrified. He is scared to go out and he now sticks by me or his dad's side.
"He is worried he might have been specifically targeted. He knows the police have arrested people but he also knows they are not still locked up in the police station. He's scared if he goes out again they might attack again.
"I dread to think what could have happened if it would have been an inch or so lower - it would have changed his whole life.
"I think a lot of people aren't aware how dangerous air rifles can be. It's important that children are not left unsupervised with them."
It is estimated that there are four million air rifles in the UK. There have been calls for stricter regulation of handguns. Dr Mark Stringer of the department of paediatric surgery at St James', told the BBC: "Air weapons are capable of inflicting serious and potentially fatal injury in children.
"Several measures to reduce air weapon injuries have been suggested.
"These include stricter legislation on the ownership and use of air weapons, promoting awareness of their hazards by wider education of the public, parents and retailers, and restricting use to supervised target ranges.
"It is time for a co-ordinated approach from the public, police, sporting organisations, manufacturers, and retailers, and politicians."