Why You Should Get Your Kids Involved With Nontraditional Sports
When you think of kids' sports, you likely think of metal bleachers, lawns of manicured grass, and maybe a makeshift concession stand in the distance. Perhaps all the kiddos are wearing matching cotton T-shirts, with a team moniker and last names spelled out with iron-on pasties. Maybe it's soccer; maybe it's softball. Regardless, it just feels like summertime, no?
We fully appreciate and believe in the benefits of team sports: Research shows it contributes to better self-esteem, improved social skills, and fewer symptoms of depression. However, there are plenty of reasons, too, to get your child involved with the more nontraditional variety. The first reason? Turns out more and more children are starting to lose interest in standard team sports in general: According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70% of kids drop out of organized sports in the U.S. by age 13. The main reason they found for the declining interest? Kids reported not having fun anymore. But that doesn't mean you should give up on sports entirely—maybe there are just different avenues for your kids to explore. Think cycling, hiking, climbing, martial arts, and more. And like standard sports, these, too, have plenty of benefits for kids.
The most obvious, of course, is regular exercise and time spent outdoors. We've talked extensively about how good being outdoors is for all of us, as studies show. And, too, there's plenty of research about the importance of exercise on human development: We know that exercise for children of all ages is positively related to their academic performance and cognitive function.
Of course, this goes deeper than that, too. "Sports, traditional or not, can develop someone's personality. Being around others and socializing, that can be part of it. It's also being good at something that can give confidence. And it's about exploration and creativity," says Tom Cove, CEO and president of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. "Of course kids don't know they're doing this; they're just being active. They're not like some 7-year-old who wakes up and is like, 'You know, I really want go out there and find myself!' But that's still what they are doing."
And while team sports are known for fostering socialization and the ability to work with others, alternative sports tend to feed the part of a kid that is independent and creative. "There's a certain kind of person who doesn't want that regimented deal, practices, rules, and all of that," says Cove. "And with these activities, you can do your own thing; there are no rules. Yes, when you get older, you can get involved with competitions, but at first, it's just about the freedom."
Of course, we understand that there's a practical reason so many parents default to organized team sports: There's infrastructure already in place. "It is supposed to be a safe space with a grown-up watching the kids and system," says Cove. "You, as the parent, don't have to be worried every second your kid is doing it because there is a structure of protection." This doesn't as readily exist for alternative sports, in part because the nature is to be structureless. This is where parents and kids are just going to need to get more comfortable with the idea of independent play. "Unfortunately this really just doesn't exist anymore. It used to be where you'd let kids figure out what they want to do on their own," Cove says. Now? fostering that independence, ironically, might take a little more work: "You have to break down those first-level barriers and say, 'It's not a big deal to be outside; it's not a big deal to try new things; it's not a big deal to be on their own,'" says Cove.
To note: It is possible to create some structure around these activities, so there's a safety net and socialization, without losing the qualities that make them so attractive. It's a reason why mom and outdoor influencer Rebecca Caldwell (we've talked to her about raising wild children before) started the Little Explorers Club, a city-by-city organization for kids and parents looking to start or join hiking groups. Essentially you can set up a club in your city, if it doesn't have one already, and set up group outings and hikes for kids of all ages. "With the Little Explorers club, we are aimed more at just getting young kids out to explore and play. We don't think of it as a 'sport,' but having other friends and kids out in nature with them keeps it social and fun for kids," she says.
And here's the thing, there might be more obvious options for team sports, but there are other resources available. Below are a few to check out, as a kickoff point. "It's just important that they're active," says Cove. "From there, be open-minded and facilitate as many opportunities as possible—sure, sign them up for soccer, but show them how to ride a bike and go for a hike!"
- Rascal Rides provides information to families and kids about all forms of cycling, from mountain to BMX.
- Local bouldering gyms often offer youth programs. Search for one around you, but here are a few in major cities: Brooklyn Boulder (NYC), First Ascent (Chicago), Sender One (Los Angeles), Planet Granite (San Francisco), Summit Climbing (Dallas).
- The Tony Hawk Foundation helps build safe skateparks around the country, as well as aiding various local skating programs.
- Road Runners Club of America keeps kids moving with Kids Run the Nation.
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