Learning loss, disengagement, anxiety and depression are soaring among young people, and our schools need a radical rethink to address this before the next academic year begins. A recent New York Times survey of 362 school counselors revealed that a pandemic-related loss of social-emotional learning skills continues to wreak havoc on students’ well-being. Ongoing Covid-19 disruptions and a record-high number of school shootings are exponentially adding to stress levels. Solutions are needed for this mounting mental health emergency before our window of opportunity closes.

I believe we start by giving more children equal access to play — a concept called play equity. It’s about who has opportunities to participate in physical activities and who does not. All young people deserve access to recess, unstructured playtime, team and individual sports. As a mother, athlete and professional in the youth sports world, I’m keenly aware that play is one of the most underutilized and powerful solutions available. As a much-needed outlet for stress and a way to build positive relationships, regulate behavior and boost self-esteem, sports also help kids academically.

Unfortunately, the play equity gap has only increased since 2020. It hit our most vulnerable communities the hardest — those with longstanding inequities, who were disproportionately affected by Covid. Where I’m from, in Los Angeles County, 50% of youth reported being less active since the start of the pandemic. New data shows that as household income increases, so do activity levels. Children from homes with income under $35,000 a year play far less as they are unable to access the resources they need to be active and healthy. This is not a personal failing. It is systemic inequity. Our institutions do not provide quality opportunities for all young people to play.

This is not about talent or training. It is about access, opportunity, teamwork and coach mentorship. Many public schools have defunded sports programs, and most offer physical education just a few days a week. This reinforces a pay-to-play youth sports culture with few free and low-cost opportunities at a time when they are most needed. In my own industry, I have repeatedly seen how this plays out in poor communities and communities of color. That’s why I’m passionate about my work at LA84 Foundation and The Play Equity Fund, which sponsors youth sports and play programs to ensure that every child benefits from essential and, sometimes, lifesaving physical activity.

Read the full article about play equity for children by Renata Simril at EdSource.