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State of Play, Part 1: How can we get more kids involved in sports?

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

A newly-released report about youth sports participation in Western New York shows a lack of physical activity by many young people. But it also offers ideas on how to get kids more interested and involved with sports. It begins with a question for the children: "What do YOU want?"

The State of Play in Western New York was delivered Thursday afternoon in Buffalo. The report was months in the making and surveyed parents and youth in the eight counties of Western New York.

The Aspen Institute, in cooperation with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, conducted the research and learned while more than 80 percent of Western New York parents expressed appreciation and support for having their kids involved in sports, less than 20 percent of the region's kids take part in physical activity for at least one hour daily.

The report also finds that the culture of neighborhood kids getting together to play pickup games on their own has virtually disappeared. Mary Wilson, widow of the late Buffalo Bills founder and longtime owner Ralph Wilson, pointed this out as one of the alarming findings within the report. She lamented the lack of kids getting together to play games on their own, away from the modern-day structure and parental involvement.

"It was great riding my bike, running in the neighborhood, playing neighborhood football until my mother put a tennis racket in my hand," Mrs. Wilson said. "It was a great way to grow up."

Backers of the State of Play say the research shows such improvised physical activity leads to better performances in the classroom, a lower likelihood of developing costly chronic health problems and a greater likelihood of raising children with better health habits.

So why and how is it that video games have captured the hearts and attention of kids? Tom Farrey, a former reporter for ESPN and now executive director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, says video games offer kids the action, creativity and interaction that they don't necessarily get with sports.

"It has everything except for physical activity," he said. "Then you go to a youth sport practice and a kid might touch the ball three times in the course of a game or practice. And then you wonder why they check out after a while."

The State of Play report offers eight strategies to renew interest in youth sport participation. It begins with asking children what it is they want from sports. Caleigh Alvarez, a 14-year-old who participates in synchronized swimming with the Tonawanda Auqettes organization, suggests sports need to be more affordable.

"I know a lot of sports that to be on the team you have to pay a lot," she said. "So, it's kind of hard for some people to join the teams and stay on the teams. It would probably be easier if it didn't cost as much money."

Money has indeed become a key factor in keeping many kids away from sports. Farrey says that's a problem that shouldn't have to happen. He pointed to soccer as an example, a sport he says is played in most parts of the world by poor kids who need only a ball and a space to play.

"However, in the United States and in this region here, somehow we've turned this into a game where some parents are stroking checks north of two-thousand dollars a year to have their kids play soccer," Farrey said. 

The State of Play report encourages a return of free play, even among organized programs. Allowing kids more opportunities to set their own game rules will help them with leadership and social skill development, said Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo president and CEO Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker.

"Sports should be fun," she said. "Sports are about physical activity. They're about learning how to play and work with others, and they're about developing a lifelong commitment to staying active and developing that habit and that behavior."

Coming in Part Two: The State of Play encourages parents to allow sports sampling, rather than force kids to specialize in one sport. Report backers also offer ideas for how to make more safe, quality play spaces available to kids.   

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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