America just got a very bad report card. Each year the Aspen Institute compiles the State of Play Report, which grades how the U.S. is doing in getting kids to be physically active and playing sports. And the just-released State of Play 2017 report has troubling numbers and lots C’s and D’s, which unfortunately don’t stand for “cool” and “divine magnificence.”
The report focused on kids 6 to 12 years old, because this is a particularly critical age range. Critical as in important and not critical as in pointing out everything that is wrong with you (e.g., “Mom and Dad, your clothes are ugly and your investment portfolio is terrible.”) This is the age range during which many physical activity habits are established, substantial growth occurs, and key aspects of physiology are set, meaning that health problems, such as obesity, tend to carry over into adulthood.
Here are some of the grim numbers from the report. In 2016, only 36.9% of kids from 6-to-12 years old played at least one team sport on a regular basis. This number has been steadily dropping each year since 2011 from 41.5% to 41.4% to 41.0% to 38.2% to 38.6% to 36.9%. Drops occurred among most of the major team sports. From 2008 to 2016, the percentage of 6 to 12 year olds regularly playing basketball went down by 3.6%, baseball by 4.1%, soccer by 2.7%, tackle football by 1.5%. Also, in 2016, less than half (49.8%) of this age group played an individual sport at least once during the course of the year. That’s over half the age group not running, cycling, roller skating, skateboarding, golfing, martial art-ing, or tennis-ing a single time over an entire year.
The numbers look even worse for kids in low income households. For example, among households that earned less than $25,000, the percentage of 6-to-12 year olds who played a team sport at least one day during the year dropped from 35.7% in 2015 to 34.6% in 2016.
The one major bright spot in the report? Girls’ participation in team sports has been rising, with the percentage who played at least once during the year going from 49.4% in 2011 to 51.3% in 2015 to 52.8% 2016. It’s still significantly lower than the number for boys (61.1%) but at least going in the right direction.
The report also offered grades on how well our country is implementing eight strategies that will encourage kids to play more sports:
- Ask kids what they want: D
- Re-introduce free play: D+
- Encourage sports sampling: C-
- Revitalize in-town leagues: C
- Think small: C-
- Designing for development: C
- Train all coaches: D+
- Emphasize prevention: C
You know the joke about being underwater when you are C-level and below? Well, these grades show that the 8 strategies are barely surfacing because America just isn’t doing a good job at implementing them. For example, the D for the first strategy arose because adults continue to design sports leagues and programs without asking kids what they really want. Kids after all are people too, albeit smaller and more likely to laugh at fart jokes. People in general tend to do what they want more than what they are told. With the video game, social media, and entertainment industries paying closer attention kids’ likes and dislikes (sometimes literally), what are kids going to do? Participate in a sports program that’s no fun to them or spend their days watching YouTube videos such as that of a man cementing his head in a microwave oven (by the way, don’t cement your head in a microwave oven)?
Why the D+ for “re-introduce free play”? Remember simply biking around town, swimming in the local lake, playing tag, or playing the game with the shortest rule book in the world: “kill the man with the ball”? These days, kids just aren’t running around and playing informally as kids used to do. There haven’t been enough initiatives to reverse this trend such as the free-play baseball league profiled.
Bruce Y. Lee writes about sports. You can keep up with forbes