The Aspen Institute conducted its third “Project Play” Summit in Washington, D.C., on May 17. The sold-out event was both a stimulating and frustrating experience.
There are very many people doing marvelous things to increase the quantity and quality of sport participation among youth, especially focusing on ages 6 to 12 and underserved populations. However, intriguing local initiatives do not appear to be easily scalable, and the platitudes of national organizations do not appear to be reaching their local affiliates where youth coaches pressure parents and kids into year-around specialization and promise college scholarships.
We cannot expect that those whose business is winning medals (NGBs and USOC) or those whose business is making money (major college and professional sports) will be thought or action leaders who effectively increase participation rates and frequency or reduce obesity in adolescents. These goals will be good for PSAs and niche initiatives, but will never be a part of the DNA and daily mission of these entities.
We need to seek leadership of thought and action among adults who work with youth every day and who see sport not as an end in itself but as a means to help prepare the whole child for later life. And to be more precise, we need to seek leadership where the kids are and where facilities already exist. In our nation’s schools.
When recess and physical education programs with ample opportunities for free play and sports sampling are restored to elementary schools, and broad and deep programs of interscholastic athletic programs are adequately funded in junior high/middle schools and high schools, then and only then will we begin to reverse obesity in youth and their future burden on society as adults.
The epidemic isn’t obesity; it’s inactivity.
This nation must awaken to the reality that physical literacy is as important to our future as reading and writing have been in our past. Science, technology, engineering and math are important to our nation, of course, but possibly less essential to an individual’s health and happiness than physical literacy – developing the ability, confidence and desire to be physically active and, as an intentional consequence, much more likely to live healthier and longer.