Learning loss, disengagement, anxiety and depression are on the rise in young people and our schools need a radical overhaul to tackle this before the next academic year begins. One last one New York Times survey of 362 school counselors found that a pandemic-related loss of social-emotional learning skills continues to wreak havoc on students’ well-being. The ongoing disruptions of Covid-19 and a Record number of school shootings are exponentially increasing stress levels. Solutions to this growing mental health emergency are needed before our window of opportunity closes.
I believe we start by giving more children equal access to play – a concept called play equity. It is about who is able to participate in physical activities and who is not. All young people deserve access to recess, unstructured playtime, team and individual sports. As a mother, athlete, and professional in the world of youth sports, I am well aware that play is one of the most underutilized and powerful solutions available. As a much-needed stress reliever and a way to build positive relationships, regulate behavior and boost self-esteem, sports also help children academically.
Unfortunately, the level playing field gap has only grown since 2020. It hit our most vulnerable communities hardest – those with long-standing inequalities who were disproportionately affected by Covid. Where I’m from, in Los Angeles County, 50% of youth reported being less active since the pandemic began. New data show that as family incomes increase, so do activity levels. Children from homes with incomes below $35,000 a year play much less because they are unable to access the resources they need to be active and healthy. This is not a personal failure. It is systemic inequality. Our institutions do not provide quality opportunities for all young people to play.
This is not about talent or training. It’s about access, opportunity, teamwork and coaching mentorship. Many public schools have devalued sports programs and most offer physical education only a few days a week. This reinforces a pay-to-play youth sports culture with few free and low-cost opportunities at a time when they are most needed. In my industry, I’ve seen this happen time and time again in poor communities and communities of color. This is why I am passionate about my work at the LA84 Foundation and Equity Play Fundwhich sponsors youth sports and play programs to ensure that every child benefits from essential and sometimes life-saving physical activity.
However, it is more than a passion for me. Its personal. Just before covid started my son was diagnosed with a learning challenge and he was struggling academically. We transferred him to a private school with more resources; his therapist suggested that team sports would help. Even in one of the best public schools in our district, they only had a physical education teacher three days a week and no after-school sports programs. But at his new school, he has PE every day and access to a variety of team sports. The immediate improvement in his confidence, grades and physical health was remarkable. It reaffirmed what I already knew: physical activity and play benefit everyone and can’t just be for the privileged few.
It is understood that post-pandemic funding remains largely focused on the impact of learning loss. I get it, our kids have to catch up. But it is more than academics who have suffered. Not only sports promote emotional and social well-being, but also keep children engaged in school. A recent study showed that 60% of children in sports attended school much more when they played sports. They also tried harder and participated more in academics. Growing up in LA, I showed up to classes because I had to play basketball and tennis. Despite having great teachers and being a decent student, if it wasn’t for the trust and positive social connections I made with my teammates, I probably wouldn’t have been as successful academically.
The research is clear: students are struggling and under-resourced teachers are being asked to do too much. According to Meredith Whitley, author of Report of the President’s Council, there are 1.2 million mental health professionals in the US and a largely untapped pool of 6.5 million youth coaches available to support our youth. But they need more resources, including funding and training, and we need them in every school, for every age group. Parents, teachers and staff must build an equal-play movement and demand more sports programs with before, during and after school options – for all students, regardless of ability, location and socio-economic background. This movement must start at the community level.
We need a more inclusive youth sports system that includes locally driven programs focused on what young people really want and need.
Don’t know where to start? Contact organizations like Project Play, The PLAY coalitionor Play Capital Fund. We can connect you with organizations in your local community. Our children need all of us to speak up for greater access and opportunities for sports in school and in the community, because the road to rebuilding the emotional and social well-being of this generation begins on your local field and playground.
Renata Simril is president and CEO of LA84 Foundationa non-profit organization that creates sporting opportunities for all children and promotes the importance of sport in the positive development of young people.
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