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Is there a social divide in children's sports?

We all know how essential physical activity and sports are to our children’s health, social skills and well-being, and so we as parents are quick to encourage such activity. However, when it comes to participation in sports beyond the compulsory school P.E curriculum, there may still be various social divides which dictate who participates in which sports.

It would be nice to think that, in this day and age, all children would have equal access and opportunity to pursue any sport that appealed to them, but is that really the case?

kids sports

Social class and sports

One of the main factors that could be affecting participation in certain sports is the socio-economic status of each individual child. It has been theorised by some sociologists that, the higher an individual’s social class, the higher the likelihood of that individual being involved in sports. This is said to be partly due to the natural cultural interests born out of upper class values but also to the availability - or lack thereof -  of funds which are necessary to sustain an interest and involvement in many sports.

However, Dr Thomas C Wilson, professor of Sociology at Florida Atlantic University, believes that, whilst members of the upper classes are more likely to participate in sports, there are some sports which are more commonly associated with the lower classes - such as football - due to there being less need for financial supplementation. Sports associated with the upper classes include tennis, sailing and equestrianism, all of which require a significant financial commitment to provide equipment and tutoring. Therefore, the sociology of sport is seen as a highly complex issue and something of a paradox.

When it comes to children’s participation in sports it can often be the case that, beyond the compulsory sporting activities of school physical education curriculums, some children born into families of lower social class have less opportunity to participate in sports traditionally associated with upper class culture. As previously mentioned, this is most often due to the inability of the child’s family to provide funding for expensive equipment, clothing and regular tutoring. Children of so-called ‘lower class’ are therefore often limited to sports such as football and basketball which require minimal equipment and can be played recreationally.

Fortunately, charities do exist which aim to tackle issues of economic, opportunity and aspirational poverty. Access Sport is a charity who run volunteer-led sports clubs to provide inclusive environments in which children from all backgrounds can pursue sporting activities. Initiatives such as this go some way towards eliminating the financial restrictions upon children from disadvantaged backgrounds when it comes to sports.

Gender and sports

Another factor which can limit the participation of children in certain sports is their gender. It has long been tradition that sports such as football, rugby and golf are viewed as the domains of men. This has, therefore, often prevented female participation due to worries of stigma and backlash from family members and peers.

It follows, then, that little girls playing football in the playground with the boys rather than playing with dolls or skipping ropes are often viewed as unusual and sometimes even actively discouraged from this behaviour as they grow older.

However, a more recent article in the Daily Mail has described how more and more women are now pushing against these gender stereotypes and taking up these traditionally ‘male’ sports. This is evident in the ever growing popularity of women’s football which has seen a real surge in public support in recent years, helping alter public opinion and blur the lines between traditionally male and female sports.

This has had a profound effect on youth sporting participation and means that young girls and boys are encouraged to take up any sport they wish without being held back by their gender.

Geography and sports

Where a child lives can have a significant effect on how likely they are to participate in sporting activities outside of school. Take the UK for example: a child who lives in suburban or semi-rural towns will have far more access to open green spaces, leisure centres and safe, secure playgrounds, making it easier for them to engage in recreational sport. On the other hand, a child who lives in an inner-city area will be far more restricted when it comes to available, safe space to play, therefore discouraging their involvement in sports.

The issue of geography is also somewhat tied in with the issue of social class, with more disadvantaged families often living in deprived, inner-city areas and wealthier families commonly living in the more well-to-do suburban towns. This is, of course, not always exclusively the case, though many sociological studies do show that a strong correlation does exist between social class and geography.

Luckily there are programmes in place to give children living in cities access to play sports in their free time. Solidarity Sports, for example, are a charity who work with children in inner-city London to get them playing sports together, having fun and learning valuable life skills in the process. It is charities and programmes like this that are helping to eradicate the sidelining of children based on their social, cultural and economic status.

Swimming as an inclusive sport

It can be argued that swimming is a more inclusive sport than others. It is certainly a highly popular sport amongst people of all ages, gender and socio-economic backgrounds due to it being a fun, easily accessible, low impact activity.

Often a sport introduced to children through school physical education curriculums, swimming soon becomes a familiar and enjoyable part of their lives and is more heavily encouraged than other sports due to it being seen as an essential and potentially life saving skill.

When it comes to social, economic, geographical and cultural status, therefore, swimming is often exempt from stereotyping and classification of this manner. It is an inexpensive sport to engage in due to the only necessary purchases being a swimsuit and access to a pool, making it accessible to the majority of people no matter what their background or where they live.

When it comes to gender, there is little to no segregation evident in participation in children’s swimming. Both boys and girls are equally encouraged to swim both in school and out, and both genders are more or less equally represented in the world of professional, athletic swimming.

One possible argument for gender separation in swimming comes when female children reach adolescence and body image becomes an issue. Last year, an article by the Telegraph revealed that almost half a million women in England have stopped swimming over the last decade. In 2014 alone, 181,700 women quit swimming compared with 63,300 men, and experts are inclined to think that female body image is a key contributing factor in these statistics. TV campaigns such as the  2015 ‘This Girl Can’ campaign were launched to combat issues such as this and encourage women to participate in sport no matter what they look like.

Overall, it can be said that there are still many social divides when it comes to children's participation in sports, though the efforts to minimise the significance of these are growing more and more each year.  It is certainly nice to imagine a world where, someday, there will be absolutely no barriers preventing our children from pursuing something that they love regardless of background.

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