September 22, 2020

Just Icing on the Cake?

The calendar tells us that we celebrate a new year on January 1, but for many families, the start of a new school year and the onset of fall seems like a better benchmark for the passage of time. The arrival of the new school year often brings the start of a new class, perhaps a new school and in many neighborhoods, the return of high school stadium lights and PA announcements of “goal” or “touchdown.” Not this year. This year, schools are operating very differently. Stadiums and fields are empty, and families are having to adjust to a very different fall schedule. Like many, I have conflicting thoughts and feelings about the changes we are facing and, in particular, the canceling of youth sports.

On one end of this pandemic, we need to protect loved ones and the vulnerable from an unpredictable illness. On the other end, kids and families are living through times like no other, in which they are deluged with the negative impact of the pandemic and the divisions and disparities it has highlighted. Whether learning in remote, hybrid or COVID-19 bubbles, school is not the relief from the solitude that kids and families were hoping for. Kids need social activities, and sports and recreation offer them a place to cut loose, a place to learn, a place to grow and a safe place to fail and then try again. Yet, from every direction, we hear of canceled programs, job cuts and closed parks.

From a science perspective, we understand the thinking behind these cancellations and closures, but not all cancellations are tied to health concerns. Other factors, such as fiscal challenges, prevent us from taking this important early step toward normal. Throughout Western New York, youth activities are being canceled to balance budgets. Why youth sports? Youth sports and activities are often viewed as the icing on the cake of childhood, not a necessary ingredient. It has not helped that over the past 50 years, sports in this country have evolved into something we watch as opposed to something we do. When we view sports as “extra” or “entertainment,” it becomes an open target for budget redlining.

At Project Play WNY, we want everyone to understand the greater value of sport for kids. Sport and recreation is essential to the effort to build healthy and resilient children, stronger families and thriving communities. As we know, play pulls us all through difficult times. When lessons learned in the classroom are combined with lessons learned at play, it creates a platform for success in life. All of us need to do more to spread this message both in our actions and our words. We need to become passionate about providing families with access to the programming that can bring this thinking to life.

Let’s take some actions. Join us this fall to find ways to keep kids active and engaged. Please check out our What’s NOT Canceled-Let’s Get Playing resources. Can you find a way to offer COVID-19 safe outside games for small groups in your neighborhood or on your street? If you are part of a youth sport organization, consider sponsoring a pop-up free play hour— families will love you for it. Please contact us at to learn more about how we can work together to offer safe, opt-in sport and recreation opportunities that provide families the freedom and flexibility to choose how they want to keep their kids engaged. And, let’s keep highlighting the greater value of sports—it is more than icing on the cake. It plays a valuable role in helping kids to develop the character, values and life skills that will act as a compass for decisions they will make throughout every stage of life. Involvement in youth sports is a key ingredient to building stronger kids, families and communities. Let’s pull through this time together and find a way to offer families access to the sports and games that are even more critical today for them and their kids.