It’s a typical Saturday morning in the Vaughn family’s Palm Beach Gardens home: Ryan Vaughn gets up at 6 a.m. to make sure his 6-year-old son, Jameson, is out the door in time to make his 7:30 a.m. hockey practice at a facility 20 minutes away.

After hockey, Vaughn shuttles Jameson to his next activity — a soccer game — and then the Vaughns attend the soccer game of their 8-year-old daughter, Ava. Weekdays are similarly busy. Jameson also plays flag football and though Ava is only doing soccer, she is part of a competitive travel team, which means that she spends plenty of time on the field practicing. 

This hustle and bustle of shuttling kids from one sports practice or game to another is common in high-income American homes, where 70% of children participate in team sports, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same data set shows that you’re less likely to see a Saturday like this in low-income neighborhoods, where only about one-third of youth take part in such activities. 

Though there has been an income disparity in youth sports participation for at least a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic widened the gap even more, said Jon Solomon of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. 

“All kids to an extent were impacted (by lockdowns), but particularly those that couldn’t access fields or parks nearby just to play outside,” said Solomon. “Whereas a lot of travel sports, more expensive sports, came back much faster because they were commercialized.”

While COVID-19 was the perfect storm for exacerbating this disparity, it was decades in the making. As school districts nationwide cut funding to both physical education and sports programs, private, corporate club sports stepped into the gap, offering parents who can pay other options to get their kids moving. And not only do low-income families have problems paying, irregular schedules and shift work mean that many can’t shuttle their children to and from activities. 

But the answer to the problem might not lie in getting more low-income children on more soccer teams. Rather, research points to a paradox: despite the conventional wisdom that more is better, children of high-income families don’t always benefit from sports. Maybe the nation doesn’t need more organized sports. Could we even need less?

Pay to play

The Vaughns offer a perfect example of a family that can afford to pay to play: of the $200,000 the couple makes annually, Leigh Vaughn, 30, estimates they spend about $5,000 — “maybe more” — just in fees for the children’s activities. Then there’s equipment. And because Ava is part of a travel soccer team, there are additional costs, including hotel stays, gas and meals out.

The expenses began even before Ava joined the team. Before the Vaughns moved to South Florida from Connecticut last year, Leigh and Ava flew down so Ava could spend a week attending tryouts for the travel team. 

Leigh Vaughn explained that she fondly recalls doing travel soccer when she was growing up — she went on to play in college, as well — and she wants her children to have the same great experience. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a positive correlation between physical activity and creativity, self-esteem, impulse control and life satisfaction more broadly. Leigh Vaughn is also mindful of the range of benefits associated with physical activity; she wants her children to feel the enjoyment of succeeding in something they’ve been working toward. 

Though middle-class participation is higher than that of low-income families, it lags behind that of the wealthy. And for many middle-income parents, too, it’s a struggle to pay.

Summer Harrison, a mother of three in Soda Springs, Idaho, works multiple jobs to keep her 15-year-old son in football and basketball, her 12-year-old son in baseball, travel basketball and football, and her youngest, her 8-year-old daughter, in volleyball and competitive dance and gymnastic teams. 

Harrison estimated that the family pays between $5,000 and $6,000 a year for all these activities. 

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Asked about the sacrifices she and her husband make to pay for these activities, Harrison said she doesn’t really mind passing up on things like clothes for herself or getting her hair done. Her mother was a single mom and her husband is one of 12 children, so it’s important to both of them to give their children the opportunities they didn’t have as kids. 

But the one thing that they are giving up is time together as a family, Harrison reflected, “just because we are running in so many different directions.”

Leveling the playing field

There are organizations, cities and counties trying to level the playing field for low-income families; Salt Lake County is among them. For example, families of children who are on free lunch at public school pay reduced rates to participate in sports programs, said Callista Pearson, communications and public relations manager for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. 

Similarly, the South Salt Lake Parks and Recreation Department sports youth programs cost $25; children who are on free or reduced lunch or who receive other forms of financial assistance pay $10, according to director Aaron Wiet.

But applications and income verification can be long and intrusive processes, and transportation is often still an issue for these families. 

And because low-income families have limited options, they sometimes end up putting their children in low-quality programs, said Kroshus, who added that carting children 30 minutes to extra lessons aren’t necessarily doing their children any good.

While organized sports keep kids physically active and it’s important to address the socioeconomic gap in this area, Kroshus said, “making sure that everyone has the (same) over-competitive, early specialized sport experience as the more affluent kids — that’s not the answer.”

The risk of burnout 

Perhaps because physical activity and sports participation has so many benefits, parents often take a “more is more” approach — starting them young and often encouraging them to develop their skills in one area. This is particularly true of high-income families, who can pay for their children to take part in not just in the city’s recreational leagues but also all-star and elite teams. 

But this leaves children vulnerable to the burnout that comes from overspecialization, explained Emily Kroshus, a pediatrics professor at the University of Washington Medical School. And Project Play found that 32% of high-income families reported that their children had become so uninterested in sports that it was an obstacle to returning to the activities. 

“If we want our kids to be healthy and active for life, it doesn’t make sense to put them into highly competitive, single-sport participation at an early age,” said Kroshus, who added that the quality of the coaching is part of the equation. Unlike teaching, a profession in which there is training and certification, coaching youth sports is “kind of a free for all,” said Kroshus, “and you are just hoping for the best.”

Kroshus said parents sometimes just assume that a sports program is good but they should be more “critical about the environments they’re putting their kids in,” taking into consideration the duration and intensity of the training.

We should also ask ourselves what our children are missing out on. “What are you not able to do as a result of your sports participation?” asked Kroshus. 

In the end, like so many things in life, it’s about finding a balance. Parents should strive to find a sweet spot, in which their children are “playing an optimal amount of sport, coached in a positive way, where you’re feeling connected to your community, and you’re building physical literacy skills,” said Kroshus. “In my opinion, there’s nothing better.”

‘Rethink what we’re offering’

Across the board, experts agree that American children need more physical activity. But the question is: What should that physical activity look like?

In addition to bringing PE classes back to schools, Solomon said that the interscholastic sports that are the standard in American high schools should be rethought — in part, that’s because children from low-income families sometimes can’t make the high school teams because their wealthier classmates, who have been participating in sports from a young age, outperform them. It’s also because the traditional offerings are increasingly out of step with students’ interests, said Solomon, who pointed to a Project Play survey of 6,000 students nationally. 

“The No. 1 sport they said they most want to try is archery,” said Solomon. “And then there was lots of interest in fitness type activities, like strength training, or yoga, dance. We need to reimagine and rethink what we’re offering.” 

Kroshus points out that children don’t necessarily need to be part of something structured to reap the benefits of physical activity. “Free play is incredibly developmentally beneficial if it’s a safe option,” Kroshus said. “Maybe your kid is, in the long run, better off running around the playground and then coming home and having a discussion with your family about something important at the dinner table.”