WASHINGTON — Youth participation in team sports is declining as kids spend more time on their electronic gadgets, says an educational group that wants to use Baltimore as a model for improving recreational opportunities for kids.
The Aspen Institute released data Wednesday showing that 36.9 percent of 6-to-12-year-old children nationally played team sports regularly in 2016 — down from 41.4 percent in 2012.
"Only 9 percent of kids mention sports when asked what their favorite weekend activity is," said Tom Farrey, head of the institute's Sports and Society program, at a conference on youth sports participation where Baltimore played a featured role.
The nonprofit humanities institute is in the midst of a three-year, Under Armour-funded initiative called "Project Play: Baltimore" to engage more youths in sports by studying the quality and accessibility of programs.
"The need for positive sport activity is great in Baltimore City, where many youth face challenges," said a report released at the daylong event.
The theory goes, advocates say, that engaging more youths in team sports grows more responsible, better-performing students and adults.
Nina Locklear, an 11-year-old from Perkins Homes, appeared on a panel to espouse the benefits of youth sports.
"What I tell my friends is, 'Try to get off the phone because it can be really annoying,'" said Locklear, who participates in a junior coaching program run by Playworks Maryland in which she helps kids devise recess games and resolve conflicts at her elementary school.
She appeared to enjoy being interviewed with two other kids by moderator Dan Hicks of NBC Sports. Squinting under bright television lights, she sat in a chair and waved to the audience of about 400 at the Newseum — an interactive museum in downtown Washington — that included representatives of sports and health organizations as well as the news media.
"The thing is, when you play sports, it's like playing with your own family," Locklear said.
She said she loves sports but that few children play outside in her neighborhood because it's not safe.
The report recommended that Baltimore tap into a new $12 million city fund to bolster recreational opportunities to keep children and teens active and involved in their communities.
The institute called the fund a potential "game changer."
It said the money "represents a major opportunity to build a healthier community through growing the quality and quantity of youth recreation activities."
But a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — who championed the Children and Youth Fund — said it is too early to say where the grants will go.
"It's premature really at this point when we're getting the structure and governance established of the Children and Youth Fund," spokesman Lester Davis said. "It's going to be community-led and grass-roots-driven."
The fund was approved by voters as a ballot question in last November's election and will be one of the city's largest distributors of grant money. It sets aside more than $12 million a year for youth programs.
Voters approved the fund in the year after protests and rioting following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody. The unrest drew attention to the pervasive problems faced by city youths, including poverty, inadequate education and a high rate of incarceration.
The partnership between the Aspen Institute and Under Armour aims to use Baltimore as a laboratory to guide other cities in the development of programs that help urban youths stay fit and engaged.
The project kicked off publicly in June at the UA House at Fayette, an East Baltimore community center. More than 1,800 students living nearby were surveyed to gauge their interests and experience, pinpoint what sports they want to try and the reasons why they don't participate more often in athletics.
"What we've learned from that small pocket of the city can be a model for improving recreation and play throughout the entire city as well as other cities around the country," said Tracey Estep, chief of recreation center operations for the city Recreation and Parks Department.
In the 1980s, Baltimore had more than 100 recreation centers and now it operates 42. The city has been working to renovate and reopen centers, including the Morrell Park Community Center in 2013, the first new one built in more than a decade. Mayor Catherine Pugh reopened the Crispus Attucks Recreation Center in West Baltimore's Madison Park in June after a five-year closure.
The Baltimore youth survey found strong interest in two sports that aren't widely available — swimming and gymnastics. It said many students expressed concern about having a safe place to play in their neighborhood.
The Aspen Institute said the youth fund could be used to promote or cover the cost of shared-use agreements to create more places for kids to play sports.
"A lot of organizations don't know anything about shared-use agreements or how to get it started," said Andre Fountain, the Baltimore coordinator for Project Play. "Schools first come to mind because every school mostly has a gym."
But Fountain said hotels could be recruited, for example, to share swimming pool time with local youths.
"You could think outside the box," he said.
The institute said it is teaming with a number of organizations — including Major League Baseball, Nike and the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — to grow youth participation rates in sports and recreation.
"Today's generation of kids is the least active in history," said Caitlin Morris, general manager of Nike Community Impact.
The institute said one of the goals should be to better listen to what the newest generation of kids wants in athletics.
Estep said that could mean, for example, helping kids race model cars outdoors — anything that gets kids active in a healthy way.
"Instead of us offering traditional sports, you can offer non-traditional sports," she said.