All too often, the adults organizing youth sports don’t ask the kids participating what they want to get out of it.
Challenge //   Youth sport is organized by adults
Ask kids what they want.
It’s Rule No. 1 in business: know your customer. Video games (and the technology industry more broadly) often get blamed for our kids’ sedentary habits, yet they provide much of what children want out of a sport experience, including: lots of action, freedom to experiment, competition without exclusion, social connection with friends as co-players, customization, and a measure of control over the activity — plus, no parents critiquing their every move. Simply put, the child is at the center of the video game experience, all made possible by research and feedback loops that seek input from its young customers.
Now imagine if youth sport providers worked half as hard to understand the needs of kids, especially those who are left out or who opt out of sports. Organized competition can be scary for many children. We should ask them why and what should change. We should also look at minimizing attrition among girls, who drop out of sports at higher rates than boys. And figure out how can we systematically solicit and act on the diverse perspectives of kids who are living with disabilities, or who have chronic health conditions, or whose families have few resources or don’t speak English.
9 OUT OF 10 CHILDREN SAY “FUN” IS THE MAIN REASON THEY PARTICIPATE IN SPORTS
Fewer than 1 percent of sports sociology papers have examined youth sports through the eyes of children.(10) Most of what we know involves kids already in the game, and it suggests extrinsic rewards and “winning” mean far less to them than to adults. In a 2014 George Washington University study, 9 of 10 kids said “fun” is the main reason they participate. When asked to define fun, they offered up 81 reasons — and ranked “winning” at No. 48.(11) Young girls gave it the lowest ratings.
Children mostly want a venue to try their best. While they often want to know the score, and may even cry if they lose, most don’t obsess over results, sport psychologists say.(12) Ten minutes after the final whistle, kids have moved on; often it’s dad and mom who still want to talk about the game at dinner. The misalignment of adult and child priorities could play a role in the fact that 6 out of 10 kids say they quit sports because they “lost interest.”(13)
We need to ingrain the voice of children into the design of youth sports programs. We need to regularly survey kids at the community and even team levels, both pre- and post-season, and use the results to inform league policies and priorities. In New Mexico, the Notah Begay III Foundation has found such surveys valuable in introducing soccer to Native American children, for example. Additionally, kids need formal representation on decision-making bodies.
Close the feedback loop, and kids’ bodies may start to get as much exercise as their thumbs get from gaming.
What Kids Say Is The Most Fun
They want social bonds and access to the action
The Aspen Institute recognizes select organizations that take new, specific, meaningful action aligned with each play. Apply to be a Project Play Champion.
At the annual Project Play Summit, we advance the conversation on each play, identifying new opportunities. Learn about them by watching the sessions below.
2015 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Ask Kids What They Want: An introduction
Moderator: Gary Hall Jr., 10-time Olympic gold medalist, swimming
Panelists: Erin Bryant, alumna, DC Scores; Amanda Visek, Associate Professor, Exercise Science, George Washington University School of Public Health; John West, Founder and CEO, Whistle Sports; Eli Wolff, Director, Inclusive Sports Initiative, Institute for Human Centered Design
2017 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Ask Kids What They Want: Kids — So When Do We Get a Vote?
Moderator: Dan Hicks, Broadcaster, NBC Sports
Panelists: Brenton Baker, Buffalo, NY; Nina Locklear, Baltimore, MD; Andrew Ramos, Montgomery Village, MD
2018 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
ASK KIDS WHAT THEY WANT: WHAT IF YOUTH DESIGNED YOUTH SPORTS?
Moderator: Kobe Bryant, NBA Legend
Panelists: Zoe Barlow, 13-year-old soccer referee from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Ka’olu Holt, 13-year-old Little League World Series champion from Honolulu, Hawaii; Shawkierra Mills, 12-years-old Special Olympics track athlete from Detroit, Michigan; Owen Norwood, 11-year-old multisport athlete from Mobile, Alabama
“Kids in baseball say they want to hit, catch, and run. Yet, what do parents do as soon as they take over? Eliminate the hit, catch, and run by telling kids not to swing or maximizing use of a pitcher who strikes everyone out. They eliminate the basis for fun.”
Jay Coakley, sports sociologist
The Tony Hawk Foundation — the only national organization that empowers at-risk youth through the development of skateboard parks — provides toolkits that help kids advocate and raise funds for park construction. One Minnesota kid’s presentation was so sharp, the mayor put him on the city’s parks commission. Since 2002, 557 such parks have been built in all 50 states, work that was honored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with the 2013 Steve Patterson Award for Excellence in Sports Philanthropy.