The Uneven Playing Field
Kids may be over-scheduled these days, but it's not because they are spending all their spare time at the hockey rink, the soccer field, or the swimming pool. According to a study published last month by Statistics Canada, the number of kids participating in sports is on the decline. Just 56% of boys and 45% of girls ages 5 through 14 played sports in 2005 as compared to 66% of boys and 49% of girls the same age in 1992. That amounts to a 10% drop for boys and a 4% decrease for girls.
What's even more disturbing is the ugly truth you discover once you start asking which kids are being left out of the game. Statistics Canada researcher Warren Clark, the study's author, found that Canadian kids who miss out on organized and informal sports activities tend to fall into one or more of the following categories:
Children from low-income households (especially if they are girls). The sports participation rate for children from the lowest-income households (the bottom 20 percent) was 44% as compared to 68% for children from the highest-income households (the top 20 percent). The amount spent on sports-related expenses can be substantial, notes Clark, putting sports participation out of the reach of some children: "In 2005, 51% of two-parent households with children spent money on sports and athletic equipment. Those who made such expenditures spent an average of $579 during the year. In addition to these equipment expenses, families may also spend money on facility rentals, transportation to sports events, club memberships and competition entry fees in order to support their children’s participation in sports."
The sports participation gap between boys and girls increases as household income drops, suggesting that girls from lower income families are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to being involved in sports. This effect is particularly pronounced in single-parent families, according to Clark. "Under the strain of financial problems, lone parents may sacrifice the sports participation of their daughters, reasoning that sports have traditionally not been as important to young girls’ identities as they are to young boys."
Children living in urban areas—particularly if those areas are considered unsafe for outdoor play. Sports participation rates for children ages 5 to 14 range from a high of 58% in smaller cities and towns with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 to a low of 47% in Canada's three largest cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The 2005 General Social Survey found that sports participation rates were lowest (42%) among children in high-density areas where low-income families were most likely to be living.
Children of recent immigrants. Children of recent immigrants are least likely to be actively participating in sports. Even in soccer, participant rates for the children of recent immigrants are 10% as compared to 23% for children whose parents were Canadian-born. Making a living in a new country can be a challenge for many first-generation Canadians. As participation in sports often requires economic resources, children of recent immigrants may face financial barriers to sports participation. It's an unfortunate missed opportunity because internationally popular sports such as soccer may provide the children of recent immigrants with familiar ground on which to integrate into Canadian society.
All this data begs the question: what will it take to even the playing field for Canada's most vulnerable kids?
If you think the non-refundable Children's Fitness Tax Credit (introduced in 2007) was the answer, think again. The families most likely to benefit from the tax credit are those who need the incentive least: the children of high-income earners (a group of children who are already 1.5 times as likely to be participating in sports programs as the children of low-income Canadians). A non-refundable tax credit is only of benefit to a family which has tax owing. A non-refundable tax credit is of no use to a family living at or below the poverty line. Besides, you have to spend $500 (the maximum per child) to get $45 back -- a less-than-appealing proposition for a family that's having difficulty making ends meet.
So what's the solution? I wish I knew. It's clear that it will have to include affordable (or free) community-based sports programs. I'm sure a lot of people are working on these issues right now. It would be great if some of the people who care passionately about this issue could identify themselves, via this blog, to the rest of us so we will know who you are and where we can find you – so we can offer you support and ask what we can do to help raise awareness of this issue.
Bottom line? It's not okay that family income is becoming a key determinant of who gets to play the game and who gets to sit on the bench. How sportsmanlike is that, after all?
Note: In my next blog post, I'll be writing more about how playing sports (both organized sports and informal sports) during the early years makes a huge difference to the healthy development of kids – and what it means to us as a society when certain kids are denied that opportunity.