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Project Play Summit advances strategies for activating kids

09/15/2017, 4:00pm MDT
By USA Hockey

The Aspen Institute promotes eight strategies “to get kids active and healthy through sport” as part of its Project Play initiative. The first of those strategies – “Ask kids what they want” – is especially resonant with USA Hockey’s Kevin McLaughlin.

“Studies show that the main reasons kids play youth sports is to play with friends and have fun,” he said. “Those two motivations far surpass any others. Kids don’t play to wear fancy uniforms or matching track suits, and they don’t play to take long road trips or face so-called elite competition. So you have to ask, if that’s not what the kids really want, who’s driving it and why?”

Questions like that were a source of much discussion during last week’s Project Play Summit in Washington, D.C., an event heralded as the United States’ premier gathering of leaders at the intersection of youth, sports and health. McLaughlin was among the attendees, with USA Hockey being saluted for its American Development Model.

“It’s the third annual Project Play Summit, and at every one, we look for ideas we can bring back to youth hockey,” said McLaughlin. “We’re definitely not resting on our laurels. But it is nice to see so many of our ADM principles being embraced by other sports around the country.”

Study results reported during the Project Play Summit showed ice hockey among the few youth sports to gain participants from 2008-2016, a time period coinciding with the launch of USA Hockey’s ADM in January 2009. That growth remains robust in longtime hockey markets like Minnesota, and it’s even more pronounced in newer hockey markets like California and the Potomac Valley. A 2017 Aspen Institute survey emphasized this point, with ice hockey ranking in the top 3 “sports youth want to try” among kindergarten through fifth grade students in Baltimore, Maryland, and in the top 5 among Latino students.

While those numbers are a compliment to hockey, the diminishing participation in other sports is a frightening indictment of the overall youth sport environment, which is losing participants at an alarming rate.

“Today’s generation of kids is the least active in history,” said Nike’s Caitlin Morris in an Aspen Institute release. “No one can solve this problem alone. That’s why the collaborative dialog that Project Play creates is so necessary.”

Initiatives like Project Play aim to reverse the inactivity trend by making sport more accessible and affordable to all through its eight strategies that, not coincidentally, reflect the ADM.

The Eight Plays of Project Play

  1. Ask kids what they want.
  2. Reintroduce free play.
  3. Encourage sport sampling.
  4. Revitalize in-town leagues.
  5. Think small (Smaller fields, smaller surfaces; be creative in identifying sport spaces).
  6. Design for development (Age-appropriate play recognizes kids are not mini-adults).
  7. Train all coaches.
  8. Emphasize prevention (Keep kids safe so they can grow up to be healthy, active).

“One threat to so much of youth sports is the environment where you either have to be all in, to the exclusion of anything else in your life, or you’re all out,” said McLaughlin. “Sports need to combat that and provide options that aren’t so exclusive; options that allow kids to play for fun, friends and good health while still leaving room – and resources – for other activities. A big part of that is staying local and making wise use of the sport spaces that are available, and another big part of it is not getting caught up in a race to the wrong finish line.

“It’s not supposed to be all about 12U championships, peaking by Friday or earning a college scholarship. It’s supposed to be about fun, friends, life lessons and a foundation for healthy living.”

How can you get your kids into active play? Find suggestions in the checklists below.

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