Youth access to sports participation in Hawaii mirrors the state’s income inequality, with lack of transportation, quality facilities and organized leagues serving as major barriers to play, according to a new report from the Aspen Institute titled “State of Play Hawaii.”

The 45-page report by the Washington, D.C.-based education and policy studies think tank, which was commissioned by the Queen Lili’uokalani Trust, is a snapshot of the landscape of youth sports in the Aloha State between December 2018 and June 2019.

The report highlights a number of interesting findings — that despite its island location, Hawaii sees many children who cannot swim due to too few programs offering swim lessons, making this now “a marker of poverty.”

Ocean Safety Jet Ski sits near shore at Ala Moana Beach Park.

The inability to swim has become “a marker of poverty” for children in Hawaii, according to a new Aspen Institute report on youth participation in sports.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Transportation is also a huge challenge for kids to access practices and games, with most kids in Hawaii depending on a family member to shuttle them around. Kids who play sports in Hawaii rely on school and city buses at only half the national average, according to the report.

“The urban-rural divide often dictates access to programs and facilities, and favors those who live in or around Honolulu, Hilo, Wailuku and Lihue,” the report states.

Families in Hawaii also tend to spend more on average for their children to play sports — $732 per child per season compared with $693 nationally. The report suggests this can be traced to parents spending a lot of money for their children to specialize in one sport early and through private clubs for a better shot at competing in private school athletics.

“For many families, getting their children into private school is the ultimate goal,” the report states. “The focus on private schools leaves public schools with fewer advocates and fewer parents with a stake in making the public school system better.”

The report suggests a number of recommendations to promote and improve youth access to sports. One is improving the usability of public space: two-thirds of Hawaii residents live within a half mile of a park, compared to only 39% of the total U.S. population. Offering more shade, water fountains or better restrooms in Hawaii’s public spaces can improve experiences for kids, it says.

It also suggests free bus passes for youth to get to practices, recruiting college or high school athletes as youth coaches and referees, collaborating with community partners to offer more after-school sports programming, setting a statewide proficiency standard to measure swim literacy and designing “mobile clubhouses,” that brings sports to where kids play instead of the other way around.

The Aspen Institute report was compiled using a task force of local leaders and through interviews with stakeholders, focus group discussions, youth and adult surveys, the report states.

The Lili’uokalani Trust is a private operating foundation that serves the most vulnerable Native Hawaiian children and families.

The report will be used to inform community strategies and develop new partnerships and programming. Greater youth access to a quality sports experience has far-reaching benefits, such as better educational outcomes, improved mental health and lower health care costs into adulthood, according to the report.

“State of Play Hawaii” is the Aspen Institute’s first assessment of an entire U.S. state.

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