How Can High School Sports Better Serve Students?

Despite the growing body of evidence that shows how physical activity is essential for health, well-being and student engagement, high schools offer fewer opportunities for competition and play today than they did just a few years ago.

The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program recently released the findings of its years-long study on high school sports. The report emerged from an extensive series of roundtable meetings with scores of experts in the field; data analysis on students, sports and high schools; and additional interviews to complete the picture.

Overall, a minority of kids are active in school through sports or physical education. The report included this data:

  • On average, 38.8% of students in public schools played high school sports during 2017-18. The percentage was lower for kids in urban schools (32.6%) and higher among those in rural areas (42.2%). More high school boys (42.7%) than girls (35.1%) played sports.
  • The number of kids who took part in physical education for one day a week or more has dropped precipitously since 1991. Just 35% of freshmen, 26% of sophomores, 22% of juniors and 20% of seniors engaged in PE in 2019. In 1991, the percentage of students by grade was much higher: 66%, 52%, 27% and 21%, respectively.
  • Between 2011 and 2019, kids’ overall rate of physical activity fell: 29% of kids reported being active for an hour or more a day in 2011, versus 23% in 2019.
  • The inverse was true of online activity. In 2009, just 25% of students reported spending three hours or more on their screens. That number had climbed to 46% ten years later.

The most surprising finding for Tom Farrey, who runs the Sports and Society Program, and who co-authored the report with Jon Solomon, is “that the supply of sports experiences provided by high schools doesn’t meet student demand.”

This “1970s model” of sports, as Farrey put it, is out of date for 2022. Kids want all kinds of athletic options, way beyond the standard menu of sports that schools typically provide—like football, basketball and track and field. Teenagers expressed enthusiasm for biking, yoga, strength-training and archery, among other activities, suggesting that more kids would participate in sports and PE if schools were open to expanding their options.

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