Why are we organizing our kids so much?

The data confirm what I have long suspected:

Childhood’s outdoor pastimes are declining fast and the rate has accelerated in the past decade, especially the past five years, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) annual survey of physical activity.

Since 1995, the portion of children ages 7 to 11 who swim, fish or play touch football has declined by about a third. Canoeing and water skiing are down by similar amounts.

The relationship between kids and their bikes is especially telling. In 1995, 68% of children ages 7 to 11 rode a bike at least six times a year. Last year, only 47% did. The sales of children’s bikes fell from 12.4 million in 2000 to 9.8 million in 2004, a 21% decline, according to Bicycle Industry and Retailer News,an industry magazine…

Children today tend to get outdoor exercise by appointment.

Soccer participation has been unchanged in the past decade – about 28% of kids age 7 to 11 play the sport. Soccer leagues and soccer camps are in full bloom this summer, although non-organized soccer games are uncommon.

Organized outdoor activities have kept kids moving. They are declining but much more slowly that unstructured outdoor play.

Little League participation has fallen to 2.1 million children, down 14% from its peak in 1997. But overall baseball playing – pick-up games, catch, pickle – has declined nearly twice as fast, the NSGA surveys show.

Here is the full story.  Now how about some hypotheses? 

1. Escalation of a signaling game.  You have to get those kids ready for college now.

2. Reference frames are relative, and an initial slight increase in parental paranoia has fed upon itself and has been bumping up safety and control standards for many years.

3. Suburban sprawl is a tax on spontaneity.  And as more kids get trapped into planned networks, it becomes harder to go it alone.

4. Parents have always wanted to exercise such control; only now has the ongoing growth of civil society provided the requisite institutions.

Any other nominations?

Comments

Three related nominations:

1)50 years ago, we rode our bikes to school, to the store, downtown shopping, etc. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, bike theft became rampant, helmets became required (despite being decidedly uncool), and auto traffic patterns changed, making bicycle riding much less fun.

2) video games, home entertainment systems, and the internet. We had television then, which dismayed our parents, but kids stay indoors even more these days. Also, the high incidence of two-income families has led to considerable use of the new technology as a baby-sitter.

3) increased parental worry. 50 years ago, we wandered the neighbourhoods, rode just about anywhere on our bikes (streets or sidewalks, who cared?). Nowadays, parents are increasingly concerned about predators.

On the parental worry point - I think this might have to do with the declining # of children per family as well as the delay in childbirth. Although the probability of something bad happening to your child might be the same as it was before, parents are unwilling to risk the opportunity for such an uncommon event given that they have no close substitutes if they were to lose an only child past their child-bearing years.

A related question. Are Chinese parents obsessed with their children's schedules?

Start-up costs of pick-up games and the income effect from playing organized games.
Assume there is a cost to starting-up a game of touch football. Going to everyone’s house or calling, and there is an uncertainty. Perhaps you won’t be able to get enough people to play and you will have wasted your effort.

Perhaps when kids were involved in less organized sports they played were more willing to start there own pick-up games. They would then, having paid the costs of getting the group together, play for a longer period of time than, an organized game lasts. In a free “playing† market, this is the equilibrium amount of play-time.

With parents scheduling these events for the kids, children might want to play a little more, but it isn’t worth the start-up costs.

As to why these organizations suddenly exist. Reasons 1-4 sound good, but I’d also like to just throw out that we simply have more disposable income these days, leisure activites are where that usually shows itself. Plus, parents enjoy going to there kids soccer games, they don’t go watch them ride their bikes.

Suburban living definitely contributed to my spontenaity as a child. Most of my friends lived just around the block, and I could easily simply walk over to their houses for whatever sort of playing we wanted to do. Football, pickle, catch, bike racing, whatever. I don't think the suburbs have much to do with it.

Judging from our experience, most of the cited reasons are correct,
but don't overlook how incredibly tempting modern houses are vs.
the great outdoors. Homes today are larger, more likely air-conditioned
and more equipped with mesmerizing toys and electronics. I often literally have to throw our kids outdoors on
nice days. Obsessive parental worry about stranger abduction and other
remote risks combines with the huge structural problem posed by low-density sprawl.
For many--most?--kids, neighborhood pick-up games simply aren't an option, and
we've conditioned them not to think in these terms anyway. "Sports" involves parents,
coaches, driving and uniforms.

I think the main drivers have all been mentioned but I have two other minor points that I think also act as additional drivers of this trend:

1) Less "free" space for kids to play in. When I was growing up 25 years ago there was still a lot of undeveloped land around. Behind my house was a farm and in front of my house was a field. At that same house 20 years later there is no open space for kids to play in. It is all homes and apartments. If I had to relive my childhood again in that house today I would imagine that I wouldn't spend much time outdoors because outdoors would only consist of my friend's and my yards.

2) Streets used to have sidewalks and homes in most mid-size cities were still relatively close to town or a commercial center. Living patterns for many people have dramatically changed - cul-de-sacs that feed into busier, faster arteries with no sidewalk and crosswalks. Plus suburbia tends to be further out in bedroom communities where nothing can be reached without a car. Hence why would you ride a bike if there is nothing to ride too? Much of main street has been hollowed out and relocated to malls. Go to the malls and see the number of kids just hanging out there.

A couple other points:

Although incidents of abductions may be down since I was a kid since the number of children on the streets has declined even more so the children that are out running around unsupervised have a higher probability of being abducted. So I don't think parents are necessarily acting irrationally about this. Plus the increased media focus has resulted in parents' greater awareness of the risk.

The growth of technology correlates with a sedentary lifestyle, more machines doing the work for us, and I have a high degree of confidence that the correlation will continue to hold going out into the future. Our economic activity has become much more sedentary. More and more people work sitting at a desk rather than in a factory, at a job site, etc. I don’t think kids are any less creative but what they are creative with, computers and video games, tend to be more focused on mental creativity rather than physical creativity – i.e. building forts. Given the future demand of the job market I think that although completely unintentional, what kids are now doing for play matches the skills of what they will be required to do as adults on the job.

Echoing everyone else.

Children who take part in unsupervised activities are generally less supervised. Free to choose these kids choose to play video games. (My sister has to throw her 8 year old out the door) Thus the decline in unsupervised outime activity. Supervised kids aren't so 'lucky' thus the relative lack of decline in supervisd out door activity.

I played sandlot baseball or football every after school afternoon growing up. No parents anywhere. There were some injuries, but we learned to settle rule disputes, etc., without resorting to fists. This is a loss for the current generation.

Another hypothesis: organization is a rational response to fact that competitive selection is used to allocate scare playing opportunities. Better coaching and more frequent practice make you more likely to succeed in a subsequent competitive selection competition. This is especially true for skill-intensive sports such as baseball and soccer. These competitions start at high levels (college, high school), but naturally filter down the age chain. In a sense, we are in the process of adopting the Communist State Athletic Development Model (tm): find the best kids at age 7, train ‘em like mad, and kick out everyone else.

As a result, you get reduced participation in both unorganized (lack of space and kids) and organized (insufficient time/money, “failure† at an early age) sports. Oddly, the kids in the system “benefit† from reduced participation as it reduces competition. Leagues can recoup the money by charging higher fees, but are left with a lower quality level. Of course if everyone is using the same system, you can’t see the quality change.

Where the change is quality is apparent is when you go outside the system. This explains (for me) a couple of things: why Latin players are increasing in professional baseball (lower quality of American players), why black players are declining in professional baseball (system filters out those who can’t afford to participate), and why U.S. soccer is internationally uncompetitive (private, parent-run, club system used to train players). Of course, other factors are at work as well, but I think this perverse system of incentives has not been given sufficent blame.

I'm not sure I agree fully with Bob, but the observation that obsessive competition, even in leisure activities, drives those activities out of most people's lives is surely true. I would say that when I was a kid (I'm 26 today) competitive pressures were such that from about 4th grade to college the least skilled twenty percent of participants in any given leisure activity were unsubtly encouraged to leave each year. This implies that after a few years most of the participants in most sports, art activities, etc would basically be told that they weren't good enough. As I look to the younger generation I see something like that even in the less competitive realm of playing video games. I wonder if ten years from now the video game industry will be experiencing a decline which they have difficulty interpreting.

techreseller,
Why do you need 20 people for softball? Are you using a DH? If you played with a short center position, you could just as easily eliminate that and play with baseball positions.

1. Network effects. As organized activities become more popular, outdoor unstructured playtime becomes less fun and less safe. I send my kids to karate and gymnastics class because that's where the other kids are, not because I think it will help my kids get into Harvard or Stanford.

2. Signaling good parenting. Though many parents understand that the risks of abduction are slight, there's a societal consensus that it's a dangerous world out there. We show our attentiveness and care by keeping our kids indoors unless we're out there with them.

3. Suburban neighborhood design isolates. Cul-de-sacs with traffic-dense feeder roads and no sidewalks keep families from socializing because it's so unpleasant and even dangerous to bike or walk on the feeders to get to the other little cul-de-sacs. Traditional grid neighborhoods with sidewalks promote interaction.

I don't know if the numbers would support this, but maybe there has been a decline in density of kids on any given age (at least compared with when I was a boy in the 1950s). This might reduce the odds of getting a critical mass of kids who like (or tolerate each other) within a block or two to support an informal spontaneous outdoor playgroup.

In our neighborhood of single family homes in northwest DC there have generally been two or three boys my son's age within a few blocks, but he's never gotten very friendly with them, and has always preferred play dates with kids from the far end of the elementary school district.

Of all the above, I'd have to say I agree most with: Signalling good parenting + the modern arterial suburban design: we get the "skunk eye" on a regular basis from some of our neighbours b/c we allow our kids about 1-2 hrs per day unstructured and minimally monitored outside time. We live in a nirvana-esque cul-de-saq was blocked off from a grid system (having moved here from the 'burbs), and my observation is that there's WAY more outdoor interaction by the kids. In the burbs kids didn't even cross the street... I also observe that our house is Grand Central for the neighborhood kids, maybe b/c we just let 'em play.

I also agree that over-worried parents contribute to the situation, but I'm most interested in why parents are so damn worried these days. I think it is because of oversaturation of media, Amber-alerts, etc. that make incidents of bad stuff seem that much more prevalent than they were in the past. There's also been a shift in reporting styles to make the victims much more prominent in the story (microphones shoved in the face of grieving mother: "what do you want to say to the pervert who took your daughter?"...). I think we're out of equilibrium on the over-worrying, and that sometime people will make more rational assessments of risk to their kids.

In the end, I think it is about 75% parent-related (time pressure=need to schedule; competing for good-parent kudos; doing all possible to give the kids an advantage; over-worry) and about 25% increased choice for the kids. Face it, video games is fun!

Loss of community. When I was growing up, if I got out of line, any parent on the block would feel free to reprimand. The result was a feeling of common responsibility for what was going on in the neighborhood and an expectation that neighorhood kids would play together. Today, you couldn't reprimand someone else's child without fear of a lawsuit, and the result is that there is no advantage to playing with neighborhood children over participating in organized activities.

As usual in today's society, cherchez le laywer!!!!!!

Also social rules; when I was infourth grade I rode my bike to school in good weather, but my daughter's school forbids that.

Liability and rules. I (21) grew up in a liability and rules world.

No skating or biking at the school. No using the school field after school.
No using someone's open field.
No exploring a construction site.
No going in the park after dark.
No playing football at the park when it was raining (it can ruin the grass).
No GOING OUTSIDE AFTER DARK (6:00pm curfew for minors).
No using a playground without supervision.
No swimming in the river.
No going off the park trails.
The list could go on and on.

Kids are simple, they want fun and adventure. I realize now that most fun and adventurous things I did outdoor were illegal, such as hiking off the trail, football in the rain, hide and seek in the dark, exploring a construction site etc.. etc..

If I had obeyed all the rules, I would be playing xbox right now and not preparing for a morning swim during sunrise in Miami (also illegal in case you were wondering).

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