8 Strategies from Project Play to Build Kids into Athletes for Life

By Tom Farrey and Jon Solomon, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program

Five years ago, the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program launched Project Play to assess how well children were being served through sports. Since then, Project Play has examined the youth sports landscape in local communities (Baltimore, MD, Harlem, NY, Western New York, Southeast Michigan, Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes, NY, and Mobile County, AL), and nationally (the annual Project Play Summit will be Oct. 16-17 in Washington D.C.).

Aspen Institute Project Play LogoSome good news: More kids are participating in physical activity. The latest data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) shows that 17 percent of children ages 6-12 engaged in none of the physical activities tracked through the survey in 2017. That figure has fallen for three consecutive years, from 19.5 percent in 2014. Still, much more can be done. In recognition of National Youth Sports Week, here are Project Play’s eight plays – our strategies – that health professionals, parents, and organizations can utilize to help kids get active through sports.

  1. Ask Kids What They Want. Youth sports can get kids active by doing what comes naturally—having fun and playing with friends. Yet navigating youth sports can be confusing and frustrating. Parents and caregivers often don’t know what questions to ask of themselves, their child, and their sports provider to make sports a great experience. That’s why we created the Project Play Parent Checklists – 10 questions that health professionals can encourage parents to ask that will help build an athlete for life.
  2. Reintroduce Free Play. Many parents are reluctant to let their kids play outside – sometimes due to legitimate crime and traffic concerns in their neighborhood. Some kids are overscheduled or enjoy technology instead. The percentage of kids ages 8 to 15 who report using the internet “many times a day” has grown to 64 percent, according to KidSay Research. Let kids play sports on their own terms and they often will. Encourage parents to make time for kids to play in unstructured settings, such as recess and neighborhood pick-up games.
  3. Encourage Sport Sampling. In 2017, children ages 6-12 played an average of 1.85 sports, according to SFIA. While slight, that’s the first improvement in four years after being stuck at 1.81. It’s still well below the level of 2011, when the average child played at least two sports (2.11). Health professionals can educate parents about research showing that early specialization increases the risk of burnout and overuse injuries.
  4. Revitalize In-Town Leagues. Today, in-town leagues can be stigmatized as inferior, a casualty of tryout-based, early-forming travel teams that cater to the “best” child athletes and cost more money. In-town leagues, when properly delivered, provide cheaper programming with less time commitment than travel teams. Over the past three years, among kids from homes with less than $49,999 in household income, there’s been an increase in those engaged in no sport activity. Health professionals can encourage parents to explore in-town leagues as an inexpensive way to get kids active.
  5. Think Small. Increasing access to play spaces for most children starts with small, smart moves that hold great promise. Health professionals can work with policymakers to advocate for creative solutions. In urban areas, this may mean finding small places to develop games that aren’t regulation size. In rural areas, this may mean creating agreements to share facilities and playing fields. Think Small can also mean figuring out modes of transportation to get youth to recreational facilities and parks.
  1. Design for Development. Project Play recommends that sports programs invest in every child equally through at least age 12. That includes playing time – a valuable developmental tool that too many coaches assign based on skill level and the score. Health professionals can encourage parents to advocate for the sports programs their child participates in to adopt a policy of equal playing time. There’s a time to sort the weak from the strong in sports. It’s not before kids grow into their bodies, minds, and true interests.
  1. Train All Coaches. According to State of Play 2017, less than one-third of all youth sports coaches are trained in key competencies, such as safety, sport skills, and motivational techniques. Research shows that kids who play for qualified coaches are far less likely to quit a sport. Project Play 2020, a national initiative mobilizing industry and foundations from the technology, media, and sport sectors to take next steps in growing youth sport participation, will soon produce a resource to improve the quality of youth coaches. Health professionals can encourage parents to look for sports programs that invest in training coaches.
  2. Emphasize Prevention. Among the many issues facing youth sports, injury risks trouble parents the most. An espnW/Aspen Institute survey showed that nine out of 10 parents have safety concerns, with football by far providing the most concerns. Based on the latest SIFA data, flag football saw the largest participation jump over the past three years – up 38.9 percent – and was likely influenced by parents troubled about risks associated with tackle football. Flag is now the preferred form of football among kids 6 to 12 (5.2 percent playing), surpassing tackle (4.1 percent) in 2016 with the gulf widening last year. Health professionals can recommend families pursue safer options, such as flag football over tackle football, especially for younger children.

Moving sports and physical activity participation numbers at a population level is never easy, even with the engagement of organizations with great influence. So much cannot be controlled. All that any organization can do is its best. Health professionals can shape strategies and create policies that align with the interests of children, as reflected in the framework of Project Play.

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