New Seattle Youth Sports Report Shows Lack of Access, Resources for Physical Activity

September 10, 2019

Aspen Institute, University of Washington and King County Parks release State of Play Seattle-King County, which shows only 19% of youth receive enough physical activity

Contact: Jon Solomon
Editorial Director, Sports & Society Program
The Aspen Institute

Julie McCleery
Research Associate
University of Washington Center for Leadership in Athletics

Washington, D.C., September 10, 2019 – In a region known for outdoor recreation, barely one on in five youth in King County, Washington, gets the recommended hour of physical activity each day, while some neighborhoods lack the parks and programs to serve them. A new report released today by the Aspen Institute, University of Washington and King County Parks analyzes the state of youth sports, play and outdoor recreation and offers recommendations to grow access to quality options for all children.

State of Play Seattle-King County is the product of an eight-month study by researchers at the University of Washington Center for Leadership in Athletics (UWCLA). The study involved more than 1,600 local adults and children and teens in kindergarten through 12th grades in interviews, focus groups and surveys. The research also was guided by an advisory board of local youth-recreation leaders and followed a national framework created by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative.

The full report is available to read here: Read the executive summary of the report here.

Among the key findings:

  • Organized sport is exclusive, economically and culturally, leaving many King County youth on the sidelines. Youth who do not speak English at home are almost three times more likely to have never participated in organized sports or recreation than children who speak English at home. Youth from less-wealthy families are also less active and less likely to participate in organized physical activity than more affluent youth.
  • While King County has abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, it is not meeting the demand to support equitable access to physical activity. Youth of color and youth who do not speak English at home spend less time at the parks near them than their white or English-speaking peers.
  • Nontraditional sports like Ultimate frisbee offer models for positive youth development. Ultimate is the third-most played organized sport in the region, behind soccer and basketball. Youth said that martial arts, boxing, surfing, lacrosse, parkour, fencing and rock climbing are the sports they most want to try.
  • Youth said what they most like about organized sports and recreation is having fun and playing with friends. Winning was not in the top five reasons.

State of Play Seattle-King County is the Aspen Institute’s eighth overall community youth sports report. Other reports focused on the state of Hawai’i; Mobile County, Alabama; the regions of Southeast Michigan, Western New York, and Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes; and hyperlocal communities in Harlem and Baltimore.

“Seattle and King County have a unique opportunity to improve the lives of youth through sports, broadly defined,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. “Few if any areas in the country have a richer combination of natural and human resources to draw on. I can say that as a former resident. Our Project Play team hopes this report is used as a tool to mobilize stakeholders from across sectors, as has happened in other communities where we have worked.”

State of Play Seattle King County is intended as a catalyst for collective action, and the region has already united to deliver solutions outlined in the report. Over 30 local organizations in a variety of sectors have been involved in the project so far, including the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Children’s Hospital, the YMCA of Greater Seattle, the Bezos Family Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and evo. The Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Storm, Seattle Sounders FC, NHL Seattle and other regional professional sports teams have joined with the Mariners to promote play equity across King County.

The newly-created King County Play Equity Coalition will focus its efforts on strategies outlined in the report. That includes empowering schools to be hubs for community physical activity, launching a public health education campaign promoting the benefits of physical activity for youth, and creating an equity toolkit to help program staff and policymakers make access to physical activity more equitable. King County Parks will use findings in State of Play Seattle-King County to inform strategic investments of the county’s Youth Sports Grants.

“In the report, we tried to prioritize the voices of youth and families most disenfranchised from physical activity in our region,” said Julie McCleery, research associate at the UWCLA and the report’s principal investigator. “Now we have to collectively commit to taking that data seriously. It’s time for King County to recognize the vital role that physical activity plays in community health and educational outcomes and do something bold to address the inequities in who plays sports, who has recess, and who has access to outdoor play spaces.”

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. For more information, visit

An initiative of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, Project Play develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps stakeholders build healthy communities through sports. For more information, visit


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