OUR ANNUAL REPORT ON TRENDS IN YOUTH SPORTS AND HOW LEADERS CAN MOBILIZE FOR ACTION
KIDS NEED PLAY MORE THAN EVER
The state of play in 2021 is both improving and unstable. Families feel more comfortable to return. Many kids are back playing. But significant challenges remain, especially since so many more children became physically and mentally unhealthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twenty-two percent of children and teens have been classified as obese during the pandemic, an “alarming” increase from 19% before COVID-19, according to a study by Centers Disease Control and Prevention. For severely obese kids, their expected annual weight gain increased from 8.8 pounds before the pandemic to 14.6 pounds in August 2020. Moderately obese kids went from 6.5 pounds to 12 pounds. Even children who had a healthy weight prior to the pandemic saw their annual weight gain increase from 3.4 pounds to 5.4 pounds.
Meanwhile, an overwhelming demand for mental health services is putting an unprecedented strain on pediatric facilities, primary care, schools, and community-based organizations that support kids’ well-being. Doctors warn that some children may have increased long term adverse consequences on their mental health due to the pandemic.
It’s fair to say play, in all forms, has never been more important.
Sports, when delivered appropriately, offer physical, social, emotional and academic benefits. That’s at risk if more children cannot safely return to sports and physical activity, or if they lose interest in playing sports, as data continue to suggest is happening.
Each year, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play produces this national State of Play report by analyzing youth sports participation data from the previous year provided by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. During COVID-19, Project Play also has conducted surveys with Utah State University to understand parent and child sports experiences in real time.
Some key findings:
- Families have fewer options to play sports. Some families who have returned to sports, or want to resume play, are coming back to diminished services. Thirteen percent of youth sports parents indicated their community-based sports provider closed due to COVID-19, and another 12% said it merged with another organization. In total, more than four of 10 families said their community-based sports provider has either closed, merged or returned with limited capacity. This could have a profound impact on the quality and accessibility of programs.
- Travel sports parents report similar issues: 46% said their travel-based provider closed during COVID-19, merged with another league or club, or returned with limited capacity. More travel sports parents (15%) said their provider has closed than community-based sports, though it’s unclear how often closures are related to the pandemic as opposed to an extension of the pre-pandemic trend of program consolidation in the club sports industry. School-based sports, which often benefit from local or state government support, are the most likely to have resumed at a normal level..
- Kids are increasingly resuming sports at pre-pandemic levels: In September 2021, 47% of youth sports parents said their child has resumed sports at the same level as before the pandemic; that’s up from 40% five months earlier. Seventeen percent of children resumed playing at a higher level than before COVID-19.
- Wealth still factors into who plays: This was true before the pandemic and true today. In September 2021, 24% of parents in the highest-income bracket ($100,000 or more) said their child had resumed sports at a higher level than before COVID-19. Only 13%-14% of kids from the two lower-income brackets returned to sports at a higher pre-pandemic level.
- Parents are adjusting to COVID-19 fears: There are still COVID-19 fears attached to youth sports. Half of all youth sports parents view their child getting sick as a barrier to resume play. Yet parent comfort levels with travel sports, community-based sports, and school sports are the highest they have been in the Aspen Institute’s four surveys conducted during the pandemic.
- Individual, outdoor, socially distanced sports benefitted in 2020: Sports such as golf, tennis, surfing and skateboarding exploded in participation. Other than the three most popular sports (basketball, baseball and soccer), the top sports/physical activities kids tried for the first time during the pandemic were bicycling, swimming, walking, dance, badminton, flag football, and bowling. However, individual activities such as bicycling, tennis and skateboarding have seen declines from April 2021 to September 2021 as more organized team sports returned.
- Many kids are still losing interest in organized sports: When Project Play and Utah State conducted their first COVID-19 survey in June 2020, 19% of youth sports parents said their child was not interested in playing sports. By September 2021, that figure was 28%. The more money a family has, the less interest a child has in sports these days.
Worth considering: To return to sports, maybe some children need a better experience than they were provided before COVID-19 hit. State of Play 2021, authored by the Aspen Institute’s Jon Solomon and Tom Farrey, shares data and analysis from the past year and solutions to improve the model.
Check out the other articles in this series:
This blog was originally published by the Aspen Institute.
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