Children of varying ages, some on bikes, some playing with a soccer ball, in the street

Sustainable Child Play

I spent half of a recent Saturday outside helping some friends do yard work in what most would call a working class to low-income neighborhood of Saint Paul. It’s a pretty diverse place, too, with U.S.-born black, indigenous, and white people living side-by-side with immigrant families from many countries.

My friends’ duplex apartment is on a corner lot and the two intersecting streets get their share of car traffic, though they’re not main thoroughfares. The yard and sidewalk across the street from the side yard where we worked was a magnet for kids from multiple families in a range of ages. They were doing self-organized play, some of it in the street, which occasionally elicited irritated sounding horn honking from car drivers. (I did observe one mom checking on the kids, in case you were worrying about them.)

By coincidence, the next day I read this Twitter thread about the lack and cost of transit choices when taking kids to organized sports. The original Tweeter pointed out that his kid’s basketball game meant a choice between a car trip (26 minutes round trip, $1.50 in gas, free parking, plus the sunk cost of the car not felt at the time) or transit (70 minutes round trip, $15 cost).

A few quotes from the responses that agreed with him:

  • “Same in UK. The boy plays football this morning. Car will be a 20 min round trip, free parking. Bus will cost £7.60 and take about an hour. Car free day was not massively marked last week.”
  • “My kids were skiers when they were young. If we didn’t have a car, no trips every weekend to the mountains.”
  • “No matter how well planned the urban design, there is no way I can get my kid to his baseball game, even close by, without a car to schlep the gear. We often carpool but could never manage it on public transport. That minivan is a baseball locker room/equipment storage on wheels.”

One person did post this:

You get the very idea traveling many miles for kids sports activities is entirely a phenomena of widespread, casual private motor vehicle use. As recently as the 60s kids did things they could walk to, period. The entire ‘system’ has to shift to something more rational.

And that single tweet snapped me back from thinking from the point of view of my ongoing quest for free public transit and improved transit service to remembering that in this particular example, the reason for the trip is part of the problem.

Essentially, organized youth sports are a carbon-wasting juggernaut of parental guilt and vicarious living. With their traveling teams and ultra competitiveness, they’re a cultural form of childhood that has only existed for a few decades, but are now treated as if they’re an essential part of middle-class child life and all our transportation choices must be made to accommodate them.

Here’s the thing: Children shouldn’t be driven (or transitted or biked!) to games across town to play in organized leagues that put their developing bodies at physical risk and mentally stress them out (see this story about girls dropping out of school sports, just as they finally get to an age when it would be appropriate for them, because they’re already burnt out). Kids should be playing pickup games in close-by parks and stickball or soccer in traffic-calmed streets. You don’t need uniforms and equipment and coaches to learn teamwork. Organizing your own games is more formative than being formed by a coach. And when they’re old enough, they can be on teams at school, and get themselves there on public transit or through school transportation.

Which of these visions of childhood is more compatible with a sustainable planet? The answer is obvious. Take all those cars off the road… forget the term “soccer mom” ever existed… What a world that could be.


Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.