That winning formula that video game developers have when it comes to getting kids to play – ask them why they play, what they want and then give it to them. So why can’t we do the same when it comes to kids playing sport? The list of main reasons Kiwi kids play sport may well be more surprising for what it doesn’t include than what it does.

There are no prizes for guessing what research has confirmed as the main driver of childhood participation in New Zealand sport; “to have fun” is the most common reason kids play sport. It almost goes without saying that sport is fun, or at least should be.

Sport has long held a special place in New Zealanders’ hearts. Ninety percent of children spend three hours or more each week taking part in sport and recreation.

Looking further down the list generated by AUT’s research with Kiwi kids and a clearer picture begins to form around the overall experience children are chasing when they head to the field or the court for the first time.

Kiwi kids play sport to;

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

This list mirrors research from around the world with “fun” consistently cited by kids as the main reason they play sport.

What about winning?

Kids do like competition but what may be surprising for many parents and junior coaches is that winning does not feature highly on the list – or similar lists around the world. For kids, it’s not nearly as important has having fun, and in fact an overriding focus on winning can, and often does, make playing junior sport less fun which leads to reduced participation.

Dr. Simon Walters, a senior lecturer at the School of Sport and Recreation at AUT University and a member of the Good Sports project to improve the sporting experiences of Kiwi kids, conducted a study in 2011 entitled Whose Game are we Playing? A Study of the Effects of Adult Involvement on Children Participating in Organised Team Sports.

Responses such as this from a ten-year-old boy were typical and highlight a potential gap between the expectations of children playing sport and some adults in charge.

“It’s not if you win or lose,” he said. “My coach thinks it’s if you win or lose, but it’s if you have fun.”

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 delivering what kids want, 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.