Student Well-Being

Aspen Institute Offers Strategies to Boost Youth-Sports Participation

By Bryan Toporek — January 27, 2015 3 min read
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In a report released Monday, the Washington-based Aspen Institute offered an eight-prong strategy to boost sports participation among all youths, including the encouragement of sport sampling, the reintroduction of free play, and an emphasis on injury prevention.

According to the report, fewer than half of children ages 6 to 11 engaged in the recommended 60-plus minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity most days of the week, and fewer children are participating in team sports, too. The report cited statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which found 40 percent of children played team sports regularly in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008. While 58.6 percent of children in that age group took part in team sports even once during the year back in 2008, just 52.2 percent did in 2013, per SFIA data provided to the Aspen Institute.

What’s preventing youths from participating in sports? Household income, for one. According to SFIA data, 30 percent of children from wealthier homes (with an annual income of $100,000 or more) participate in sports, compared to just 16 percent of children from homes with an income of $25,000 or less. Income isn’t the only hurdle to clear in terms of youth-sports participation, however. The institute cited a lack of facilities, rising time demands, safety concerns and a lack of available sporting options as other potential concerns worth addressing.

Accordingly, the report highlights eight promising strategies that could help promote physical activity and youth-sports participation among all children:

  • Asking for children’s input in terms of what they want from sports
  • The reintroduction of unstructured (or “free”) play
  • Encouraging children to sample different sports instead of specializing early
  • Revitalizing recreational (“in-town”) sports leagues
  • Thinking small in terms of creating more places to play
  • Designing developmentally appropriate programs and frameworks
  • Training and credentialing all youth-sports coaches
  • Emphasizing injury prevention, especially in regard to concussions

The report then walks through how different types of stakeholders can put these suggestions into place, from community recreation groups to national sport organizations, from parents to educators, too. The institute calls upon schools to commit to providing recess, daily physical education, and intramural sports, along with opening up facilities during non-school hours via shared-use agreements.

“Sport participation has been a tool of public health for more than a century,” said’s Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, in a statement. “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.”

In a blog post accompanying the report’s release, Farrey concedes “the pathway to getting kids off the couch, without running them into the ground, will be rocky at times.” Though the Aspen Institute anticipates debates regarding certain youth-sports issues, Farrey and Co. call upon all stakeholders to adopt “a commitment to developing solutions that, above all, serve children and communities.”

Though childhood-obesity rates have leveled off over the past decade, the United States isn’t out of the woods in terms of promoting healthy living to children and teens. According to a Sept. 2014 report from the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, at least 15 percent of high schoolers in seven states were considered obese in 2013.

By promoting physical literacy to all children at an early age—that is, the “ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life"—the Aspen Institute hopes to nip childhood obesity and its related costs in the bud. As the report suggests, a wide swath of stakeholders must buy in for that to happen.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.