Why do children play sport? It’s a question that we like to throw at parents, coaches, teachers, and sport administrators to help them think about their role in creating awesome sport experiences for kids.

When we ask adults “why do children play sport?”, normally they land on most, if not all, of the five reasons AUT Lecturer Simon Walters found in his research about New Zealand children’s experiences in team sport:

  • Have fun
  • Play with their mates
  • Learn new skills
  • Be fit and healthy
  • Have a sense of fair play

To ‘have fun’ is perhaps the most widely acknowledged by adults as a reason why children play sport, but is it understood?

If we want to make sport fun, we better understand what fun looks like

Challenging adults to define what fun for children playing sport looks like we can help parents, coaches, teachers and sport administrators think about what actions they take to create and enable positive sporting experiences for kids.

Adults are often surprised when shown George Wahsington University’s Amanda Visek research about ‘what makes youth sports fun for children’. Her research covered boys and girls of multiple ethnicities aged 8 to 17, and found 81 different areas that kids said make sport fun. Here are the top 30 in rank order:

1) Getting compliments from coaches

2) Playing well during a game

3) End of season team parties

4) Practicing with specialty trainers/coaches

5) Exercising and being active

6) Getting compliments from other parents

7) A coach who listens to players and takes their opinions into consideration

8) When a coach encourages the team

9) Making a good play (scoring, making a big save, etc.)

10) Having well-organised practices

11) Having your parents watch your games

12) Going to sports camp

13) A coach who knows a lot about the sport

14) Getting clear, consistent communication from coaches

15) Playing rough

16) Being challenged to improve and get better at your sport

17) Getting along with your teammates

18) Taking water breaks during practice

19) Using a skill you learned in practice during a game

20) Being strong and confident

21) Playing on a nice field

22) Having the freedom to play creatively

23) Being around your friends

24) Doing team rituals

25) Playing different positions

26) Staying in hotels for games/tournaments

27) Having nice sports gear and equipment

28) A ref who makes consistent calls

29) Keeping a positive attitude

30) Winning

Read more about the Fun Integration theory.

Now consider the following:

  • The importance coaches play in the top 10 comments
  • The number of comments that talk to how adults and parents communicate and feedback
  • The importance of being able to connect with people, especially peers – why do you think taking water breaks during practice ranks so highly?

Obviously, this list isn’t the be-all and end-all for making sport fun for children, but it does act as a good reminder for us to think about the often forgotten and taken for granted aspects about sport that are important for creating fun sporting experiences for children.

What are some of the things that you notice about the list?

Why does it matter?

The benefits of participation in sport range from enhancing long-term mental and physical health, learning social skills, improving motor skills to those things children themselves already recognise like enjoying themselves and making friends.

There are many flow-on effects for the family and community; from the experience mums and dads share with their children to the overall value of a healthier population. This only happens if kids continue to play sport, so focusing on creating positive fun sporting environments is crucial to keeping them active for longer and ensuring better long-term results for them and the community.

And yes, centering the junior sport experience around a fun and positive experience even has long-term benefits for the small percentage of kids who eventually transition into elite sport.

The Good Sports Spine

Have a look at our Good Sports Spine, a tool we’ve created to help adults in children’s sport understand how they impact a child’s sporting experience and ultimately help adults help kids fall in love with sport for life.