Remember when kids used to run to the park after school to play football?
Or when moms broke up neighborhood baseball games on account of darkness?
Or when kids from one block challenged kids from the next to a game of street hockey?
Youth sports have fundamentally changed over the generations – from casual, unstructured play to more organized programs run by adults – and the end result has been noticeable: Fewer kids playing and staying active, and more kids overweight and obese.
But a new report – touted as the first of its kind nationally – outlines some of the specific problems and solutions for the Buffalo region, so it can get more kids off the couch.
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo teamed up Thursday to release "State of Play," a 44-page report that takes a detailed look at the access to, quality of and participation in youth sports in the eight counties of Western New York.
"So how do we get more kids off the couch without running them into the ground?" said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, which was contracted to do the study. "It starts with a clear-eyed account of how well a community is currently serving kids through sports."
The report, released during a press conference at City Honors School, was based on interviews, roundtables, focus groups and surveys of more than 1,065 local adults and kids.
Some of the highlights:
• Just 16 percent of local youth under 18 are getting the recommended one hour of daily physical activity. Roughly 7,500 fewer kids would be overweight or obese if the region could push that up to 25 percent, projections show.
• A higher percentage of black youth in the area get the recommended one hour of daily physical activity, compared to their white and Hispanic peers - 19 percent for blacks; 16 percent each for whites and Hispanics.
• Kids from the lowest-income households tend to get more physical activity than those from middle-income homes.
• While the region has made strides in providing opportunities for girls, it’s still inconsistent when compared to those for boys. About 18 percent of boys get the recommended one hour of physical activity compared to 14 percent of girls.
• At least half of the region’s 13- to 17-year-olds get physical education in school at least three days a week.
• Officials should consider selling the naming rights to parks – including the Olmsted parks – to raise money for improving recreational facilities.
• Overall, the region got a C-plus for getting kids active in sports.
"For the first time ever, we have a clear picture of what the state of youth sports looks like in our region," said Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president of the Community Foundation. "‘State of Play’ is a playbook that will drive community conversation and action on how we can collectively address youth sports for years to come."
"Our vision is to have a Western New York community in which all children, regardless of ZIP code or ability, have the opportunity to be active through sports," said David O. Egner, president and chief executive officer for the Wilson Foundation.
Beginning in the fall, the foundations will host a series of community roundtable discussions on youth sports. Three public sessions are expected to take place, but dates and times have yet to be announced. The events will be "geographically convenient" for all eight counties so members of all communities – urban, suburban or rural – can join the discussion.
The report offers more than 40 findings and suggestions.
More, better places to play: The region has a relative abundance of places to play with some 853 community sports facilities hosting more than 31 sports, but those opportunities are fewer outside Erie and Niagara counties.
Many facilities also need upgrades – particularly in Buffalo.
The region, the report suggested, should invest more in parks. The $8 million budget for Buffalo parks, for example, isn’t adequate for a city its size. Minneapolis, the report said, spends $4 per resident for every dollar spent in Buffalo.
Think big: The region should consider a limited naming rights program for public parks – nothing garish – to create a funding stream for the parks. Buffalo, too, should take into account the winter months and consider an indoor sports complex. Public-private partnerships, the report said, are proving to be win-win scenarios both locally and elsewhere.
No cost estimates are pegged to any of the recommendations. Betsy Constantine, executive vice president of the Community Foundation, said the community roundtables will help set priorities and provide a basis for determining what resources are needed.
"The community will drive what happens," Constantine said.
The Buffalo Public Schools recently mentioned that it plans to seek funding from the Wilson Foundation to improve its athletic facilities.
Think small: "In urban areas," the report said, "this may mean funding small spaces to develop quarter-sized courts for small play."
Listen to the kids: Parents agree that kids have so many indoor activities at their disposal that outdoor activities are barely given a thought. When they try to get their kids and teens to spend time out of the house, most remain entertained in front of a screen.
"Kids are missing out. They’re not really enjoying life around them," said Lynne Evans, a Buffalo mother. "They’re not really getting it."
But while video games and technology often get blamed for sedentary habits, they provide what kids crave – action, competition without exclusion, a social connection with friends and no interference from parents, the report pointed out.
"Now," the report said, "imagine if youth sport providers worked half as hard to understand the needs of kids, especially those who are left out or who opt out of sports."
The takeaway? Youth sports is organized by adults, who often fail to capture the opinions of the kids.
Reintroduce free play: Crime, traffic and fear of child abductions – which are rare – are all real or psychological barriers for parents who want to allow their children to take off across town and play with friends.
"It’s too violent outside," said Greg Elmore, an East Side parent, referring to the drug users and sellers he sees at some neighborhood parks during all hours of the day.
"You don’t want your kids around all of that, you want them to be safe," Elmore said.
The report, however, cites loosely-structured, school-based fitness programs that have been successful, along with state-wide initiatives that have provided money to transport kids to state-owned parks.
Buffalo’s new Community Schools concept, which opens schools to the public after hours, also shows promise.
Encourage a variety of sports: Boys played an average of 2.3 sports at least 12 days in the past year, compared to 1.8 sports among girls, the report showed.
The message is often clear to kids who show promise in a sport that they must specialize in one to play at an elite level.
"It’s a myth," the report said. "Grow the menu of sport options, create better connections to vulnerable populations and more athletes-for-life will emerge."
Train the coaches: No matter how well-meaning, most parent-coaches aren’t trained or prepared for working with youth.
One study found only 5 percent of kids who played for trained coaches quit the sport the next year.
"They can make an athlete for life," the report said of coaches, "or wreck enthusiasm for sport altogether."