KIDS
July 16, 2014

The Fun Factor

For kids, winning isn’t the best part of sports. Knowing what is most important can keep them engaged — and fit.

In the midst of a childhood obesity crisis, a new study gives some important and surprising clues about what makes sports appealing to kids. It’s not all about winning for most kids — quite the opposite, in fact. It’s more about camaraderie with teammates and learning new skills than anything else.

The new study asked soccer players (aged 9 to19), coaches, and parents what makes sports fun for kids. After looking over the answers, the researchers distilled them into 81 categories, or “fun factors.” Next, they had the kids rank the factors in order of importance.

The longer kids stay involved in physical activity, whether as part of a team or individually, the healthier they’ll be in the long run.

The 10 top-ranked elements were: Being a good sport, trying hard, positive coaching, learning and improving, game time support, games, practices, team friendships, mental bonuses, and team rituals. Swag — having a cool uniform or the latest sports gear — came in eleventh.

Winning wasn’t even one of the most important factors.

Since a lot of kids drop out of team sports because they aren’t “fun” anymore, the results of the study are telling. Knowing what does make sports fun for a particular child — whether it’s social interaction, practicing new skills, or developing team rituals — can help coaches and parents keep kids interested and active.

“Most remarkably, Being a good sport, Trying hard and Positive coaching came in as the top three most important factors to having fun,” study author Amanda J. Visek said in a news release. Each of these elements suggests a very different approach to helping kids enjoy and remain involved in sports than does winning.

“Keeping kids involved in sports in childhood and throughout their adolescence would be a significant public health breakthrough,” added Visek. “As a public health practice, sport participation can be a major source of physical activity and as such offers the well documented benefits of regular exercise. This is particularly important for children and adolescents.”

The longer kids stay involved in physical activity, whether as part of a team or individually, the healthier they’ll be in the long run. Hopefully, if it’s begun young with fun rather than winning as the real goal — the habit of physical activity will stick around, not only through adolescence, but also through adulthood.

So if you’re a coach and you don’t do this already, stress fun and team-building over winning. And if you’re a parent, teach your kids what sports are really all about — mental and physical health, making new friends, and honing new skills. Learning more about what elements of sports (or other physical activities) are most interesting to your children can help your family pick the ones that are the best match, and the most rewarding.

The study was carried out by a team at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.

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