Playing for Keeps
This is the second part of a two-part series on kids and sports.
In my previous post, I talked about a really important study ("Kids and Sports") published by Statistics Canada back in June. That study talked about which kids are most likely to participate in organized and informal sports in Canada -- and which kids are most likely to be left out of the game.
In this follow-up post, I want to talk about why there's so much more to this issue than initially meets the eye.
It would be easy to assume that this issue is simply about helping kids to stay fit. If that were the case, you might argue that there are plenty of other ways for kids to get fit than by participating in the local soccer league or shooting some hoops after dinner with a group of neighbourhood kids. Kids could jump rope or work out to an exercise video. In other words, you'd be focusing on ways of getting kids' bodies in motion.
What isn't obvious at first is that being involved in organized sports like soccer or taking swimming lessons allows kids to acquire important skills that are as much about learning about life as they are about learning to play a particular sport. Playing sports allows kids to channel their energy, competitive, and aggressiveness in constructive ways; to develop teamwork and leadership skills; and, starting from when they are very young, to develop important school readiness skills (skills that can help to ease their transition to school). Kids who participate in organized sports and lessons in physical activities score more highly in such school readiness measures as receptive vocabulary, communication skills, number knowledge, and copying and symbol use. What's more, kids who participated in unorganized sports at least once a week score more highly in cooperative play than other children.
Studies examining school readiness have demonstrated that children from lower income households often lack some of the skills that are associated with readiness for school. All but one of the skills that children from lower-income households tend to be lacking (as compared to children from more affluent households) can be gained through participation in organized sports (receptive vocabulary, communication skill, number knowledge, copying and symbol use) or unorganized sports ( cooperative play). There isn't any research to demonstrate that the other skill that children from lower-income households tend to be lacking (attention) can be gained through participation in sports.
There are also significant health consequences to be considered. Researchers at Simon Fraser University conducted an eight-year longitudinal study of Canadian children, focusing on the relationship between early neighbourhood environment and children's body-mass index percentiles. They found that young children living in the lowest income neighbourhoods face an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese between childhood and early adolescence as compared to children living in more affluent neighbourhoods. The researchers concluded that reduced food choices and poorer opportunities for physical activities were responsible for the unhealthier outcomes. They recommended that "policies to prevent neighbourhood disparities in overweight...focus on young children."
There are other compelling reasons for dealing with the childhood obesity problem, too. Researchers at Queen's University found that children who are overweight or obese are more likely to be the targets and the perpetrators of bullying than other children whose weight falls within the normal range. If we are aware of factors that put a particular group of children at risk of becoming overweight or obese (and therefore at greater risk of being bullied or becoming bullies), wouldn't it be socially irresponsible of us to choose to do nothing?
There's no denying it. Sports is serious stuff. It's about giving every child a fair shot at growing up healthy and strong and ready to learn. When some kids are denied access to the types of opportunities that they need in order to develop in healthy ways, everyone pays the price later on. So knowing what we know now, we have some questions to ask of ourselves: what kind of world do we want for our kids? A winner-takes-all society, where some kids aren't even allowed in the game—or a level playing field, where every kid is invited to play?
Remember, we're playing for keeps.