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According to Statistics Canada, children who live in unsafe neighborhoods, children of new immigrants and children coming from low-income families are less likely to participate in sports.

For children, joining a sports team is an opportunity to learn, create new friendships, and develop fundamental skills. Being part of a sport team not only keeps kids active but also has many psychological and social benefits. Unfortunately, barriers for some families can influence whether their children can even participate in sports.

Challenges to sport participation
  • Families of minority children do not always recognize the value of sports. They encourage their kids to focus more on academic achievements. Parents of low-income minority children might work longer hours so encouraging a child to pursue their academics is more important as it is seen as way to a better career.
  • Parents of new immigrants to Canada may come from environments where sports are not encouraged and might not know the benefits of being active. They may view sports participation as a low priority compared to family commitments, education or working. This can have an effect on participation levels among this community especially for girls.
  • Programs also need to be aware of the basic skill levels of the participants in order not to run drills that the children cannot do. Some of children need to be taught basic movement skills like how to run or catch before sport-specific skills are introduced.
  • According to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, the highly structured sports system in Canada makes access to playing sports more difficult for new Canadians. For many newcomers to the country, they are used to pickup games and the Canadian system is very formal. This can be intimidating and very foreign to people not used to such a system.
  • Lack of awareness of facilities and programs available. Access to information especially to individuals whom English or French is not their main language can make it difficult to reach some communities.
  • Language itself may become a barrier when some participants do not use English or French as their first language. Engaging with community partners for language translation can provide avenues to program facilitation.
  • A big barrier is the lack of similar people, “others like me”, participating in sports. In many minority groups, there is a lack of facilities where they can participate in sports as a community. The lack of role models at a high level can also feed into this notion. Having “outsiders” running programs may deter feelings of belonging and being in the “right place”.
  • Cultural barriers such as Muslim girls having to change for gym class or wear uniforms that go against their culture or religion can deter participation. Not being sensitive to religious holidays such as Ramadan, as children are not able to exercise while fasting, can also discourage participation. Service providers may lack understanding about specific cultural and religious needs which can deter participation, especially for girls.
  • The most significant barrier for kids developing in sports is cost. One-third of children do not participate in any form of organized sport largely due to cost. As they get better and move on from one level of development to the next, the cost of equipment, fees and travel can add up. If a child from a low-income family makes a traveling team or gets called up to the next level, unless the team is willing to fundraise or forgive the costs, that child is most likely not able to play at the next level. This hinders their ability to develop and attain the experience at that higher level.
  • Parents of low-income families sometimes work more than one job; usually shift work and long hours. In order to be able to make ends meet everybody in the family has to pitch in. Children in these families usually have to babysit their younger siblings or get part time jobs in order to help their families. With such responsibilities and the high cost of organized sports most do not have the time or the funds to participate in high-level organized teams.

The consequence of these barriers is that we are limiting our talent pool only to those who can afford to play organized sports at the national level, or who conform to our national standards. Children from higher socioeconomic statuses have better opportunities and support to continue participating in sports throughout their lives. The majority of children that participate in organized sport live in a household with an average income of $80,000+.

What can we do?
  • After school programs such as the ones supplied by the Boys and Girls Club of Canada provide a safe and affordable environment to foster sports skills. For low-income children, the Boy and Girls Clubs are usually located within the community minimizing the transportation factor while providing sports at a competitive level. Clubs often provide adult supervision and homework support. It also provides financial support through bursaries for those kids who are talented when their needs to develop are not being meet by the club. The Boys and Girls Club has also partnered with amateur team and professional sports leagues such as the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Blue Jays to provide sports leagues and clinics and the opportunity to watch professional games.
  • Organizations such as KidSport provide financial assistance for sport program registration fees and equipment for children age 18 and under. The city of Langford, BC SPORTASSISTANT program is an example of an assistance program that many cities establish to provide funding assistance for sports and recreational activities for kids who would otherwise not be able to participate. All these programs give kids the opportunity to participate and benefit from organized sports.
  • Engaging with ethnic and cultural partners can help address many of the language, culture, religious and/or community concerns that prevent the youth of these communities taking part in sport. Encouraging the support of the community in program design and delivery creates a more open and welcoming environment for kids to feel safe to become part of. Also consider incorporating “traditional” sports and games of the community in order to appeal to the local need for community.
  • Create gender specific programming and opportunities to address any cultural barrier or concerns with feelings of safety or comfort level.
  • Time programs around youth and community needs. Make scheduling age related and/or flexible to consider after-school jobs, or other commitments to family or community. Drop-in programs may be an ideal solution.
  • Offer opportunities for leadership, community service and/or paid employment. Providing an avenue for skill development, or to meet school community service requirements or even part-time compensation provides teens with incentive to become and stay engage with sport programming.

Children from underserved communities face many barriers to sports participation especially on competitive teams where fees, equipment and transportation costs can add up pretty quickly. Many of these barriers are limiting the talent pool and stunting sport development leaving a lot of talented children out of the system. Programs that recognize these barriers and address avenues to access for kids facing these barriers go a long way in providing opportunities to engage all communities and encourage sport development. There are many programs operating nationally, provincially and locally, and partnering with these programs can help reduce barriers to kids’ participation in sport.

Best Practices

Institute for Canadian Citizenship (2014). Playing Together – New Citizens, Sports & Belonging.

This study “tells the story of sports as an effective means to help new Canadians feel at home”.

Sport England. Get on Track Program. The purpose of this program is to engage with vulnerable young people aged 16-25 to provide them with a stepping stone into community sport.

USA Swimming Outreach Manual: This is a manual on how to reach and recruit underrepresented and economically disadvantaged youth into swimming.

Lauver, Sherri, (2004). Attracting and sustaining youth participation in after school programs. Harvard Research Project: The Evaluation Exchange; 10(1); 4-5.

Sport Scotland. (2001). Sport and Ethnic Minority Communities: Aiming at Social Inclusion. Research Report no. 78, Prepared for Sport Scotland by Scott Porter Research and Marketing Ltd.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.