In recent decades, childrens' play and fitness have changed tremendously, with more youth now participating in organized and supervised sports.
Kids today also are encountering an increased push for early professionalization and specialization in sports, said Lydia Bell, an assistant professor of educational policy studies and practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona.
"Sports are more and more organized, and more controlled by adults," Bell said. "The question I want students to ask, then, is who is left out? What does it mean? How does this impact kids?"
Such shifts have major implications for children's fitness and health, and also ways youth identify with activity and athleticism, she said.
To explore such implications, Bell designed a new undergraduate course, "Youth Physical Activity and Community Sport," which she is teaching for the first time this semester.
The course is designed to inform students about the important historical, social, economic, environmental and media-based influences shaping the physical activity of adolescents and teens.
During the course, students study important concepts about youth physical activity from a range of disciplines, including public health and urban planning.
"Recently we’ve examined how sport can build community, the impact of parental involvement in sport decisions, and the funding structure of youth sport,” Bell said. "It's important to have the conversation about sports because it's important to acknowledge the many ways in intersects with the education system and how it impacts long-term participation in physical activity."
For the course, which is part of the UA's adolescent, community and education, or ACE, minor, Bell drew on scientific research that has demonstrated, for example, youth are more readily able to learn when they are physically active.
Studies also have shown some youth have less access to organized sports, especially when they and their families cannot afford the sometimes steep charge to be part of a club sport or other team.
During the course, students scouted some of the more than 100 neighborhoods in the Tucson area, studying their demographics and environments while evaluating access to public transportation, grocery stores and restaurants, among other things.
Above all, students found tremendous variation in what access neighborhoods – especially those with larger populations of youth – had to areas for play, either through playgrounds or open areas.
They also found that some of the more financially depressed areas had less access to open spaces for play and, at times, even built spaces that were not always conducive to walking, biking and other physical activities.
Some also have streets and sidewalks difficult to traverse, especially for wheelchairs, bicycles, strollers and walkers, said Austin Andres Nieves, a sociology major and ACE minor in the course.
"It wasn't until class that I started driving around and noticing these things," Nieves said, adding that he took the course to learn more about the evolution of youth sports, early professionalism and the increasing shift away from children's free play.
"It was so common to gather your friends and make up your own games. That was a huge way for kids to socialize and to get physical activity," said Nieves, who grew up playing youth sports. He and others acknowledge that this still occurs, but to a lesser extent.
"Kids these days are more on a schedule, and they get their activity at lot of times through organized sports where they have to follow the rules and listen to the coach" Nieves said. "This takes away from free play and creative thinking."
One area of discussion in the course has been injuries, particularly that youth are beginning to more readily experience the types of over-use injuries only seen in professional athletes.
Students also learned about and study ways parents, communities and the media support or discourage physical activity in youth, developing original research projects around such topics.
"For kids, being able to get out of the house and into safe environments so that they are able to play is an important thing," Nieves said.
UA sophomore Rachel Dunn, who has played baseball, softball, golf, basketball and soccer, expressed the same.
Dunn opted to take the course primarily to add context to her own personal experience as a young athlete, but also to inform her practice as a trainer in soccer.
"The course has inspired me to do more with sports and to live my life a little bit differently," Dunn said, adding that she is especially more aware of issues around access to organized sports and also the need to aid in the full development of youth.
"I realize it's not enough to just work with players to help them improve their skill, but to make sure they are having fun so they don't get burned out," Dunn said, adding that allowing for more flexibility in organized sports is important.
She's already trying this out with the girls she trains.
"When you ask them to be creative and use their imagination, they think up these games and you wonder, 'How did you come up with that?' Their brains are so intriguing."
Above all, Bell said she hopes students will now think more readily and more critically about issues around youth fitness, health and athleticism. She also hopes they will apply with they learn to their future work as educators, coaches, organizers or parents.
"Sport in America – it's part of our culture, but at the same time there are a lot of matters that aren’t critically talked about," Bell said.
"Hopefully, the day these students are serving on their community boards or when they are having families of their own they will be more thoughtful and critical about these issues – whether it’s how the built environment is encouraging or discouraging kids’ physical activity, or the kind of coach they want leading their child’s sports team."