Tacoma and Pierce County Leaders Call For Increase in Physical Activity for Youth

October 25, 2023

New Aspen Institute report shows physically active children across the region feel significantly happier and less depressed than inactive children

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

Washington, DC, October 25, 2023 – A new report released today by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program identified the immense value of physical activity to the mental health of youth in Pierce County, Washington. However, not enough children in the Tacoma region enjoy the benefits of regularly moving their bodies.

State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County, authored by the Aspen Institute and in partnership with the Names Family Foundation, is a one-year analysis of the state of youth sports and physical activity in the Tacoma area.

Read the full report and executive summary.

Guided by an advisory group of local leaders whose work revolves around play, sports, recreation and healthy communities, State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County includes recommendations on how to use sports and recreation to help address a youth mental health crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Pierce County children overwhelmingly said having fun and playing with friends are the main reasons they participate in sports, according to a survey by the Aspen Institute.

Only 19% of Pierce County youth receive the 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – below national (24%) and state (23%) averages. Pierce County girls (15%) are less likely to be sufficiently physically active than boys (24%). Children with a physical disability and those who identify as nonbinary have even lower physical activity rates.

Pierce County youth who are physically active reported more excitement, happiness and motivation than inactive children, who had higher rates of nervousness, anxiety, worry and depression. For example, 25% of youth who said they have zero days of physical activity reported feeling depressed or hopeless nearly every day, more than twice the rate (11%) of those who reported being active every day.

The results suggested that youth who play an organized sport or physical activity have better mental health, although the differences were minimal compared to doing any form of physical activity. Many coaches, sports administrators and recreational professionals want to help. But they often don’t know where to turn, efforts are not coordinated, or they face significant challenges within a youth sports system that too often focuses on winning games and chasing college scholarships than meeting children’s developmental needs.

State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County outlines three promising opportunities for the community to bring a child’s mental health to the forefront within sports and recreation:

  • Train coaches and recreational professionals to promote good mental health.
  • Align sports and recreation with state and local mental health efforts.
  • Create public awareness about mental health in youth sports.

“We are all concerned about the mental health of our youth today, and the deep connection between physical activity and a healthier attitude is showcased in State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County,” said Patricia Shults, Names Family Foundation executive director. “The fact that only 19% of our youth are self-reporting that they are active for 60 minutes a day is a benchmark that this community can – and should – work to impact. With the recommendations in this report, we have the start of a roadmap to near and long-term solutions that will improve the health of our youth and community. Let’s do this.”

State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County identified 40 findings and made recommendations based on the unique characteristics of the community through youth surveys, interviews with community members, focus group discussions and publicly available information, Nearly 3,400 children across the county were surveyed about their experiences with sports and physical activity, including questions related to mental health, reasons for playing or not playing sports, relationships with coaches, and sports/activities that they play and others they want to try.

Basketball (boys) and volleyball (girls) were identified as the sports played most regularly. Youth expressed interest in trying many individual sports, such as boxing, fencing, horseback riding, archery, ice skating, surfing, snowboarding, martial arts and rock climbing. The report recommends promoting sport sampling across Pierce County.

“We’ve seen firsthand how transformative it has been to rethink how we deliver youth sports services,” said Shon Sylvia, Metro Parks Executive Director and co-host of the State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County advisory group. “By eliminating transportation barriers and providing this opportunity at their school, we experienced a 70% increase in the number of elementary school children participating in our sports program.”

The State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County advisory group included representatives from Bellarmine Preparatory School, Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound, Greentrike, Metro Parks Tacoma, MultiCare, Names Family Foundation, Outdoors for All Foundation, Pierce County Parks and Recreation, Peninsula School District, Puyallup Parks and Recreation, Tacoma Public Schools, Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainer Tourism & Sports, Trust for Public Land, University of Washington Tacoma, Washington State Department of Health, Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, and community youth advocates.

“Imagine if every child in Pierce County had access to a quality sports or recreational activity into and through adolescence, and the impact on their physical and mental health as they move into adulthood,” said Tom Farrey, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program executive director. “We hope this report makes a meaningful contribution in identifying ways to grow access for all children and how stakeholders can work together. No one organization, or even sector, can do this alone. It takes all of us.”

State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County is the 12th community report of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative, which aims to grow quality sports access for all children. Previous reports have helped mobilize leaders across sectors to set shared agendas, shape government policies, develop innovative partnerships, and unlock tens of millions of dollars in grantmaking. Since the Aspen Institute’s release of State of Play Seattle-King County in 2019, the King County Play Equity Coalition was formed by the University of Washington and recently received a four-year financial commitment from Seattle’s professional sports teams to promote equity and access in sports and play.

Future Aspen Institute community reports will analyze youth sports and physical activity in Aspen to Parachute, Colorado; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Kansas City.

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization whose purpose is to ignite human potential to build understanding and create new possibilities for a better world. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve society’s greatest challenges. The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program’s main initiative is Project Play, which develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps build healthy communities through sports. For more information, visit www.ProjectPlay.org.

The Names Family Foundation has provided over $36 million in grants in Pierce County for 26 years to nonprofit organizations that champion initiatives focused on sports, physical education, health and wellness. Scott and Evelyn (Sis) Names started the Names Family Foundation as a way to combine their passion for philanthropy and athletics. Scott and Sis owned and managed an athletic store in Tacoma and saw firsthand the transformative effect that sports and play have on individuals and the community. For more information, visit www.NamesFoundation.org.


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