To solve our mental health crisis, give more children equal access to play

Courtesy of: LA84 Foundation

Learning loss, disengagement, anxiety and depression are skyrocketing among young people, and our schools need to be radically redesigned to address them before the start of the next school year. A recent New York Times survey of 362 school counselors found that a pandemic-related loss of social-emotional learning skills continues to wreak havoc on student well-being. Ongoing Covid-19 disruptions and a record number of school shootings are increasing stress levels exponentially. Solutions are needed for this growing mental health emergency before our window of opportunity closes.

I believe we start by giving more children equal access to play – a concept called fair play. It’s about who has opportunities to participate in physical activity and who doesn’t. All young people deserve access to recess, unstructured playtime, team and individual sports. As a mother, athlete, and professional in the world of youth sports, I am acutely aware that play is one of the most underutilized and powerful solutions available. As a much-needed outlet for stress and a way to build positive relationships, regulate behavior and build self-esteem, sport also helps children academically.

Unfortunately, the fair game gap has only grown since 2020. It has hit our most vulnerable communities the hardest – those with longstanding inequalities, who have been disproportionately affected by Covid. Back home in Los Angeles County, 50% of young people have reported being less active since the pandemic began. New data shows that as household income rises, activity levels also rise. Children in households with annual incomes below $35,000 play significantly less because they cannot access the resources they need to be active and healthy. It is not a personal failure. It is a systemic inequity. Our institutions do not provide quality playing opportunities for all young people.

It’s not a question of talent or training. It’s about access, opportunity, teamwork and coaching mentorship. Many public schools have unfunded athletic programs, and most only offer physical education a few days a week. This reinforces a paid sports culture for young people with few free and inexpensive opportunities at a time when they are needed most. In my own industry, I have seen many times how this happens in poor communities and communities of color. That’s why I’m passionate about my work at the LA84 Foundation and the Play Equity Fund, which sponsors sports and play programs for young people to ensure that every child benefits from essential and, at times, life-saving physical activity.

But it’s more than a passion for me. It’s personal. Just before Covid started my son was diagnosed with a learning challenge and he was struggling academically. We transferred him to a private school with more resources; his therapist suggested team sports would help. Even at one of the best public schools in our district, they only had a physical education teacher three days a week and there were no after-school sports programs. But at his new school, he does physical education every day and has access to a variety of team sports. The immediate improvement in his self-esteem, grades and physical health was amazing. It reaffirmed what I already knew: physical activity and play benefits everyone and cannot be reserved for the privileged few.

Naturally, post-pandemic funding remains largely focused on the impact of learning loss. I get it, our kids need to catch up. But it’s not just academics who have suffered. Sport not only promotes emotional and social well-being, but it also keeps children engaged in school. A recent study showed that 60% of athletic kids attended school a lot more when playing sports. They also tried harder and participated more in academics. Growing up in Los Angeles, I showed up to classes because I got to play basketball and tennis. Although I have great teachers and am a good student, if it weren’t for the trust and positive social bonds I’ve built with my teammates, I probably wouldn’t have been so successful on the school plan.

The research is clear: students struggle and under-resourced teachers are encouraged to overdo it. According to Meredith Whitley, author of the Presidential Council report, there are 1.2 million mental health professionals in the United States and a largely untapped pool of 6.5 million youth coaches available to support our young people. But they need more resources, including funding and training, and we need that in every school, for every age group. Parents, teachers and staff must create a fair play movement and demand more sports programs with before, during and after school options – for all students, regardless of ability, location and background. socio-economic background. This movement must start at the community level.

We need a more inclusive youth sport system that includes local programs focused on what young people really want and need.

You do not know where to start ? Contact organizations such as Project Play, The PLAY Coalition or Play Equity Fund. We can put you in touch with organizations in your local community. Our children need us all to speak up for greater access and opportunities for school and community sports, because the road to rebuilding the emotional and social well-being of this generation begins at your local yard and playground.


Renata Simril is President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, a non-profit organization that creates athletic opportunities for all children and promotes the importance of sport in positive youth development.

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