As parents, we become very aware of how important the role of play is in our kids’ lives—everything from parenting philosophies like Montessori to our own childhood experiences support it. An iteration of play always exists as our kids grow: We want them to be outside, running around—in yards, in nature, and then as they get older, we explore organized, youth sports with them. The outcome we’re looking for isn’t necessarily for them to go pro—it’s getting them engaged in the world, moving their bodies. 

The benefits are myriad, and at face value, it seems so simple. But as kids get older, their participation in sports gets complicated. There are disparities based on race, income, and gender—and suddenly, the simple idea of access becomes fraught. That’s why Nike’s Play for All campaign is focused on getting kids to play and love sports—no matter the barriers.

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I learned about Nike’s endeavor to get kids playing—all kids playing—on a recent visit to Nike’s LA headquarters on a sunny, crisp day, where Nike hosted a panel of pro athletes and company leaders to talk about the impact the iconic brand is making as they help parents and kids navigate access to play. 

“We are so serious about play,” Karie Conner declared, Nike’s VP and General Manager of North America’s Kids’ Business. “Play is the gateway to sport. Kids who play live happier, healthier lives, [and] they’re more successful in school and in life.”

With an arsenal that includes allocating funds and resources to communities in need, digital toolboxes for parents and coaches, gear made especially for growing, playing kids, and providing opportunities to play, Nike is showing just how serious they are about playing for all. It’s not just income and environment that deter kids from getting involved with sports, either—the Nike panels elucidated just how much girls are likely to drop out of sports. By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys. Nike wants to level the playing field for girls, and all kids, and they’re helping parents get engaged, too.

Keep reading to find out how, as parents, we can get our kids excited about sports—and keep them that way.

Parents are their kids’ first coach—and we need tools, too

Whether you choose to get your kid involved in organized sports, your kids’ approach to play will be shaped by you. “Parents are critical,” Conner said.” For parents (aka “their kids’ first coach”), Conner introduced Nike’s toolkits that guide and empower parents to help their kids discover play and sports. The digital coaching tools include:

  • Made to Play Coaching Girls, which is for parents, program leaders and coaches to learn how to recruit and retain girls and girl-identifying young people

Being your kid’s coach also means playing with them. Nike’s host for the event, former Olympian Sanya Richards Ross (she currently holds the record as the fastest American woman to ever run the 400m), told me about how she gets her son involved in being active. “We try to make working out fun,” she said, letting him see her and her husband be active. If they want to join you, great, but “the biggest thing we can do is be an example. You gotta get up and you gotta move.”

Need ideas? If you’re lucky enough to live near a CAMP store, Nike has partnered with the experience destination to provide a limited-time Nike Kids Camp.

As the first coach, parents can also get kids excited about playing an organized sport in a few ways. Nike’s Vice President of Social & Community Impact Caitlin Morris emphasized that there’s no age that’s too young for play—”It’s not a hardcore sport to start—just play.”

And once you think your kid might be ready for an organized sport, exposure to different sports is key. “Maybe it isn’t football or soccer; maybe it’s fencing, or horseback riding, or judo, or dance… We need an expanded definition of sport. There’s so many different things kids can be doing.”

Coaching matters more than you think—particularly for girls

A kid’s coach can make or break their experience. “It just takes one [bad coach],” Conner said at the panel, to make kids, “specifically girls,” drop out of sports. “We want to train as many coaches as we can to really learn how to coach girls, how to make sure girls feel seen, [and] bring as many female coaches in as we can.”

Ross emphasized the importance of female coaches in girls’ lives. “It’s crucially important for us to have women that are coaching so we can meet them where they are… and make them feel like sports is a safe place.” 

It may sound ironic to treat girls differently to get the same outcome in sports, but it can make all the difference. Again, Nike has a specific digital toolkit for coaching girls, which is meant for coaches to consult, for parents, and for parents to point coaches toward, if needed.

Morris told me her advice for parents before they get kids involved in a sport: “Go shopping for the coach. Start there. That’s the one place parents should be involved. Watch the coach: how do they coach other kids? Do you see them yelling about ball passing, or do you see them celebrating the efforts that kids are making?” 

And if they have a less-than-great coach? Ross suggests approaching them with a phrase such as, “‘I noticed this works for my son or daughter,'” to guide the coach.

Girls need role models of all kinds

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and that is especially true for women in sports. Nike is on the ground to encourage girls in the US to get into sports where there may be barriers, partnering with LA’s LA84 Foundation’s Play Equity Fund and New York’s Laureus USA to launch Made to Play Neighborhoods. The three-year program empowers community organizations where girls are the least involved in sports and create equal access to play for Black and Latina/Hispanic girls.

And at home? Parents can show girls that women belong in sports. If you live in a place with access to professional womens’ sports, great, but Morris reminds us that you can also attend the girls’ games at your local high schools and universities; seeing those female players can be “inspirational and motivational.”

The right gear also helps, of course

This being Nike, we had to talk about the gear to do all this play in. Nike showed off some ultra-useful sneakers for little kids (in particular, the easy-on, easy-off Nike Dynamo Go), and their All Conditions Gear so kids can keep playing no matter the weather. Nike’s team also talked about how gear can promote inclusivity, showing off the upcoming Alate sport bra for pre-teens in a multitude of skin-matching colors, even providing a bra fit guide for young girls.

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