TEENSUnstructured Play and Individual Sports the Stop-Gap for Organized Sport?BY SHANA JONES
In every part of the world, the pandemic has forced us to restructure, rethink, and reinvent how we do life. When we think about a child’s experience, we know it doesn’t stop at missed birthday parties or adapting to virtual school. Organized youth sports have also taken a hit, raising the question of what kids have been doing while some sports programs remain cancelled and others have restarted on a limited basis. Have they returned to unstructured play or picked up some other physical activity? Answers may differ across societies or class lines, but the constant must be an opportunity for the enjoyment, physical stimulation, and emotional development they would have experienced through organized sport.

In the United States, kids have been opting for individual sports in large numbers, according to the Aspen Institute, an organization that tracks and analyzes sports engagement trends of children nationwide across all demographics. Aspen Institute surveys conducted during the first wave of the pandemic show that kids favoured activities that could be done solo or with others at a safe distance, particularly bike riding (individually or as part of a group). Other activities that also grew in popularity included jumping rope, hiking, skateboarding, swimming, golf, and tennis. Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, points out that unstructured play, on the other hand, has become less and less of an option due to certain pre-Covid societal factors such as crime and traffic; the general “addiction” to electronic devices could easily top this list.

It’s also worth considering the situation of those caught in the economic divide highlighted by Covid: somewhat “distracted” away from unstructured play, these kids are generally unable to access opportunities for individual sports or other alternatives. What happens to them post-Covid when the youth sports landscape will have undoubtedly changed? Such situations clearly illustrate the importance of accessible, affordable, high-quality community-based programs such as America Scores. Even during the pandemic, America Scores continues to offer at-risk youth opportunities for personal development through weekly programs featuring soccer practice, poetry writing, and community service.

Here in Bermuda, the scene has been a little different. Jekon Edness, senior sports development officer in the Department of Youth, Sport & Recreation, observed that unstructured play quickly emerged as a stop-gap for local children when the pandemic forced the cancellation of organized sport activities. Children filled their time playing in the yard, in the neighbourhood, and at local playgrounds or engaged in spontaneous “pick-up” games of cricket, basketball, and football. To a lesser extent than with American children, bike riding and running have also become options as these children eagerly anticipate the return to “normalcy”. Belinda Henderson, a senior clinical psychology assistant at Solstice (a local holistic wellness centre), stresses that especially in the interim, there must be constant and open child-parent-professional dialogue in order to maintain environments that build motivation, resilience, self-esteem and self-concept.

We can contrast the different pandemic experiences in various countries, but one constant for youth sport remains: suitable alternatives must be made available while we wait to step into the “new normal”. The physical activity and social and emotional skill building in team sports are simply too important to the well-being of children to be put on the shelf until the masses are vaccinated. Coaches and parents can encourage unstructured play and individual sports (among other activities) to keep youth engaged, especially in cases where they don’t want to return to pre-Covid sports. Regardless of the measures taken, however, activities must provide safe environments in which children are free to explore themselves, connect with others and be fully engaged without undue pressure to perform. Such activities bridge the gap to the restart of team sports or introduce new ways for children to enjoy themselves.