For the last several years, Parks & Recreation departments across the United States have struggled to find the ideal balance of time and space utilization for sports and recreation programming. On one hand, the need to increase activity levels for children – regardless of skill or aspiration level – has never been greater. On the other, the demand from competitive programs catering to players at the upper end of the skill and/or income spectrum has never been higher.
In most communities and on the national average, competitive programs have taken over. High-level players are participating in year-round programs that are granted the most desirable times at the most desirable locations, leaving less and less time for introductory and recreational programs. As a result, children whose health and social skills would benefit most from regular activity are losing the chance to play regularly and reap the benefits of consistent activity.
Countless statistics demonstrate this trend, but here is the one data point you should be most concerned about: the United States has a higher percent of overweight/obese children between the ages of 6-17 than almost any other peer country; nearly 40% of girls and 35% of boys in our country are overweight or obese. That puts us in “last place” compared to Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and nearly every other first world county.
The Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted the sports and recreation industry. Leagues have paused, tournaments have been cancelled, and – in many cases – service providers have shut down and will not return. It would be easy, and perhaps even natural, to panic. It would be equally easy to be complacent and assume that as our country rebounds the recent participation and activity trends will continue.
Instead of either of those, I encourage you to view this as an opportunity to regain your ideal balance. There is nothing inherently wrong with competitive programs and high-level players seeking extra time to improve. In fact, that is healthy and should be encouraged. But there is also nothing wrong with dedicating more time and space to kids who just need to learn to play, to benefit from activity, and to grow from positive adult and peer interactions. In fact, it is critical.
As a Parks & Recreation leader in your community, you now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a lasting impact on the health of your community by improving access to recreational programs and providing space and time for every child to play. What will you do with your opportunity?
Author: Evan Eleff is the COO of Sports Facilities Advisory, LLC (SFA) and a Partner in all of the SF Companies. He has led sports and recreation planning, funding, development, and management initiatives in over 1,600 communities around the world and is one of the United States’ leaders and foremost experts in improving the health and economic vitality of communities through sports and recreation.