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.

7 thoughts on “Sustainable Child Play

  1. Max Singer

    I cannot agree with this enough. So often in discussions of alternative transportation, the argument comes up that “I’m a parent and we need highways/curbside parking/ parking ramps/ obligate auto-mobility to get our child to x,y, z.”

    Never does it come up that this is kind of a bonkers standard- on top of all the domestic labor (most often unequally allocated), parents are expected to chauffeur their kids every which way. And so rarely do I hear middle/upper class parents think about parents who may not have their level of access – whether it is to expensive child sports and activities or having flexible schedules that can enable you to drive your kids around.

    1. Lindsey Aster SilasLindsey Aster Silas

      I think this is spot on. A car-free or car-light life is not a 1:1 comparison. You often have to make different choices and shift your priorities if you value driving less. It doesn’t mean your life is lesser, it’s just different, often in satisfying ways. The idea of driving a child around to sporting events sounds terrible to me. On the other hand, walking down the street to the park where kids from all over the neighborhood play sounds awesome and like a good way to build community.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Yeah, I/we already make a lot of different choices to prioritize not driving to happy results. We shall see how success that is if/when the kid wants to play organized sports.

  2. Jeff L.

    The horror of driving a child to a sporting event! Honestly, if my kid wants to do sports, he can do it. Maybe that makes me a horrible parent, but welcome to the world where people make their own choices.

  3. T

    The organized leagues of childhood sports were one of the highlights of my childhood. I played through the park board when I was young and the travel was never far whether it was soccer or baseball. But it was cool for me to be in a league just like the sports I watched.

    Mentally stressing kids out by playing in a league is rediculous. This is a symptom of competitive parents not the league themselves. Some stress is good for the growth of a kid. Working with the same people to produce a goal. Seeing something you wanna get better at and working to become better at it and seeing those results. These are not bad things but instead great for their development and something that although I played a lot of pickup was something not offered through that.

    Things like tackle football at a young age that does cause major physical strain is heavily reduced in popularity and this is a good thing.

    Now is putting a kid in AAU for 10 months of the year then a month of development camps as well as another team a lil much. It could be but not necessarily for everyone.

    Let the kids play

  4. Steve Gjerdingen

    The problem doesn’t end with childhood…

    I’m a grown adult who is fortunate enough to effectively have pick-up games of volleyball within a mile of my home. I’ve walked there (or ridden my bike there) a number of times. These games happen multiple times throughout the week. Unfortunately, the demographic that this group attracts is not one that is conducive to the area I live in. Many young families live around here and would be in a similar age rage potentially, but most of them aren’t interested in a group like this. In order to get 3-4 courts operational, we likely have about 40 people drive from all over to attend our pickup games during summer nights (or maybe 10-15 on a semi-warm October day). In the past, we’ve maybe had a couple of people (besides me) bike to the event during the summer months. So, that ratio isn’t great, and I’m sure our event has a large carbon footprint. What is the solution for a group of people who wants to do this regularly? Should we all live near Lake Calhoun where presumably these types of games happen all the time and where conditions are better for car-free transportation to a volleyball game? At least our equipment needs are minimal compared to some sports.

    1. Andrew Evans

      Well those activities would only be for the privileged few who would live by areas or other enthusiasts where those sports or events can take place. Everyone else would need to choose a different hobby.

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