Why Can't My Kid Play Sports Just For The Fun Of It?

In a corner of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, in the middle of the very competitive U.S. Open, there was one spot on Saturday where no one was keeping score. That would be over on Court No. 6, where, just steps away from where Rafael Nadal was scheduled to play, a gaggle of youngsters delighted in hitting the ball (or not), getting shots over the net (or just short), or even missing the court entirely and hitting home runs into the stands.

Though hosted by the USTA, this was less a demonstration of tennis than it was of the association’s new philosophy -- that it’s time to take the competition out of sports. Not on center court, of course, but on smaller stages, for kids like these, all under the age of 10. The initiative, announced at a press conference during the Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., this weekend, is designed to address the chilling statistic that this generation has a life expectancy that is five years lower than that of their parents. The reason -- childhood obesity, and all the risks and complications it brings later in life.

“If you give kids the chance to be active, they will be active,” said Dr. Bill Kohl, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and an adviser for the new USTA “Ten and Under” program. Kohl noted that eight out of ten children worldwide don’t get the amount of physical activity they need. “We as adults have really engineered the opportunities for physical activity out of daily life, engineered this to a point where they're sedentary and not physically active.”

Yes, the adults are to blame. We have spent decades misreading the risks of the world, focusing on the miniscule possibilities of kidnapping should we let them walk to the playground, rather than the very real risks of obesity from sitting indoors instead. Those of us with the money to do so have steered our children to teams and programs, where adults enforce the rules and control the playing time. And as parents we cheer on the sidelines, looking for innate talent, trying to figure out which sport is “their” sport, telling them how great they are.

The USTA’s new approach is an admirable attempt to break this cycle. The goal is to change the role of sport in the lives of young children -- creating smaller courts and racquets, for starts, eliminating competitions and rankings for that age group, not keeping score, and just having fun. “Kids are not little adults,” Dr. Alexis Colvin, the chief medical officer of the USTA and a surgeon who specializes in sport-related injuries, said at the press conference. “They're different from adults physically, emotionally, physiologically and emotionally. Sports should be tailored for our child, not for a little adult.”

The dozen children racing around the half-sized courts giving “Biggest Loser” coach Bob Harper a real workout this weekend sure seemed to be having fun. And I hope that this reversion to sports as recreation catches on. But as a parent I couldn’t help but wonder whether all this "Ten and Under" joy can be maintained where it is most lacking -- with kids "Ten and Over." Because that is another way we adults have hurt our children: by tolerating a system that, as soon as kids reach double-digits, only allows the best athletes to play.

Without the neighborhood pick-up games of less-structured eras, the principal way to be active in middle school and high school is to be competitive. An elementary student might make do with the playground at recess (where it hasn’t been cut from the schedule) and a college student might find casual play in intramurals. But in between, what is a so-so athlete, or one who doesn’t want to make morning and evening practices, to do?

The obesity problem in this country has no single cause, and therefore no single solution. But no mix of fixes will work if we don’t find a way to make moving available to all our kids. In a video created by the USTA to drive home the reality that lack of activity is literally threatening our children’s lives, youngsters were asked what they would do with an extra five years. None of them said “run around for the joy of it.” But isn’t that the only answer that will actually get them those five years back?

Here are 59 adorable little athletes who are finding a way to move...