Can active play create happier, healthier communities? Absolutely. But in an era when public recreation is being privatized, how do we give our children places to play that are affordable, safe and nearby?
That’s a question the Aspen Institute hopes to answer as part of Project Play, an initiative launched in April 2013 to reimagine youth sports in America. Forty leaders from the world of sport, medicine, media, business innovation, government and philanthropy gathered Wednesday in Chicago for a roundtable discussion aimed at moving closer to a solution.
“We’ve seen stacks of evidence that show how youth sports participation creates healthier kids more inclined to stay fit through their adult years, but at the same time, we’ve also seen studies showing that less than 30 percent of American kids regularly play sports,” said USA Hockey’s Ken Martel, technical director of the American Development Model. “That’s disturbing, especially since you don’t see as much time being allotted to physical education classes or kids playing pickup games anymore. We need to create more opportunities for children to experience active play and bring fun forms of fitness back into their every-day lives.”
Martel, who was among the Aspen Institute roundtable invitees, addressed the youth hockey component of Project Play while in Chicago. He was joined on the roundtable by Chicago Park District representatives as well as thought leaders from the National Park Service, the Clinton Foundation, the United States Olympic Committee, Nike Access to Sport and several other major players in the realm of sports and health.
“As part of our ADM, we’ve emphasized increasing the activity level for kids,” said Martel. “We want them in constant motion during practice, not standing in lines and waiting. So there’s a component of it that delivers more exercise per session. But beyond that, we also want to put more kids on the ice more often; give them more development for their dollar. That’s a great byproduct of station-based practices and cross-ice games. Teams can get an extra day on the ice each week by sharing the ice with another team. Everybody benefits, even the facilities, because they’re increasing retention, which leads to life-long players in their rinks.”
Money, naturally, is at the heart of the youth sports conundrum. As neighborhood pickup games have diminished, many kids find that organized sports are their only means of play, and those organized sports have become increasingly privatized and misguided, with an over-emphasis on the scoreboard and NCAA scholarships. It’s bred an environment in which, according to one study publicized by the Aspen Institute, parents of travel-team athletes spend an average of $2,266 annually on a single child’s sport participation. Those costs drive thousands of would-be participants away from organized youth sports and often into less healthful alternatives.
USA Hockey has, for decades, flung itself headlong into making the game more affordable, in part through countless grants and initiatives like OneGoal. Many of its affiliates and associations have matched stride for stride, reaching into their own pockets to ensure that every child in their locality could play. And while those generous efforts will continue, it’s becoming clear that youth sports as a whole have reached an inflection point.
“One recurring theme from this roundtable was that, nationwide, we need a philosophical and structural change to the play paradigm for our children,” said Martel. “As a society, we need to demand change. Hockey parents need to demand change. There are ways to reduce costs and there are ways to make the game more accessible to kids as a whole. It can be done. And the best part is, many of those same ways also help players develop their skills more efficiently and increase their athletic potential. But we’ve got to do it together, because one parent at a time can’t move the needle.”
A philosophical change might involve taking the game off the ice more often. Some youth teams have even found it beneficial to their skill development, since it provides unlimited free-of-charge practice time.
In days gone by, street hockey and floor hockey were staples of kids’ overall hockey experience. Could a renaissance be on the horizon? The increasing popularity of American floorball, already a craze in Europe, hints at it, as does USA Hockey’s recent collaboration with the NHL to create detailed resources for playing and coaching street hockey.
If accessibility, either through cost or limited ice time, is among the game’s biggest impediments, a rekindling of the rollicking off-ice hockey from our childhood could be part of the solution. But it will take a shift from today’s win-at-all-costs-in-fancy-uniforms mentality to a more child-friendly, skills-and-fun approach to get there.
“We want to do what’s best for kids, both in terms of their hockey development and also in terms of overall development, and a part of that is simply letting kids be kids,” said Martel. “They don’t need to be privatized, professionalized or specialized. They need to have fun, they need exercise and, if you’re interested in them becoming the best hockey players they can be, they need a strong emphasis on age-appropriate skill development. But most of all, they need to run, jump, laugh and play something every day. That’ll help them most when it comes to becoming happy, healthy, highly functioning adults.
“After hearing the ideas from this roundtable, I’m hopeful that, as a nation, we might be moving toward an environment where more kids will have more opportunity for active play. If we can get there, it’ll be great for kids and great for American hockey.”