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Feature Story

January 2015


Initiative Aims to Boost Youth Sports Involvement

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A new report from the Aspen Institute brings together promising strategies to help sport leaders, parents, policymakers and more work together to grow access to early, positive sports experiences for children.

Over the past two years, the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational and policy studies organization, has convened more than 250 thought leaders in 10 roundtables and other events across the nation in order to identify strategies that can address barriers limiting access to early sport activity that fosters the development of healthy children and communities. A range of barriers were explored, including rising costs of organized youth sports, the loss of casual play and the concussion crisis.

"Sport participation has been a tool of public health for more than a century," said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports & Society Program and veteran journalist. "But we're morphing into a nation of sport haves and sport have-nots, with children from low-income families and other vulnerable populations facing the greatest barriers to participation. The report creates a platform that stakeholders from across sectors can use to get all children active through sports."

Through its Project Play initiative, the Institute released a 50-page report aggregating the eight most promising strategies, based on research and the insights of experts. Authored by the Sports & Society Program with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game" is a unifying document, collecting in one place the best opportunities for stakeholders to work together to grow access to an early, positive sport experience.

To read and download the report, visit www.youthreport.ProjectPlay.us.

The report focuses on children between the ages of 6 and 12, who, despite the growth of sport as an entertainment industry, participate less often than kids did just a few years ago. Only 40 percent of children played team sports on a regular basis in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008, according to data culled for Project Play by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which commissions and annual survey on participation in U.S. households.

Participation among pre-adolescents is down not just in football (from 1.8 million to 1.3 million children), where parents have become concerned about brain injuries, but in many sports, including softball, baseball, track & field, soccer and basketball. The amount of physical activity acquired through sport is also down. In 2013, the most recent year of data collected by SFIA, less than one in three children engaged in high-calorie sport or fitness activity three times a week.

The eight strategies recognized as most promising in the report are:

  • Ask kids what they want.
  • Reintroduce free play.
  • Encourage sport sampling.
  • Revitalize in-town leagues.
  • Think small (to create more play spaces)
  • Design for development.
  • Train all coaches.
  • Emphasize prevention (to limit injuries).
  • The report offers more than 40 ideas on how these strategies could be supported by eight key sectors that touch the lives of children: community recreation groups, national sports organizations, policymakers and civic leaders, education, parents, public health, business and industry, and tech and media. It also addresses the need for national and community leadership in facilitating cross-sector collaboration around sport and physical activity.

    The Aspen Institute will host the 2015 Project Play Summit on Feb. 25 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., convening 300 sport, health, business, philanthropic and other leaders to explore and inspire meaningful efforts around the report. For more information, visit www.projectplay.us.


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