Children learn a lot about each other throughout grade school. They figure out how to develop relationships on different levels, discover which types of people they interact best with, and learn the socialization skills necessary to actually interact with them. While these are very important for the kids to develop, arguably more important is what they are learning about themselves. Throughout all levels of schooling, children struggle with the concept of identity. They try to sort out both who they are, and who they want to be. Forming an identity is an important part of growth and development in children, and can often be one of the most confusing for them.
Sports can play a big role in the identity a child develops. Kids who take part in school sports will often define themselves by them in part: “I’m a soccer player” or “I’m on the basketball team” are very common ways for those kids to describe themselves. The identity is formed around this idea of being an athlete, and the children in turn identify themselves as athletes, instead of just people who like athletics. This is a very important distinction, because it shows how much power we really put behind sports. There is a culture that sport has surrounding it, and involvement in that culture provides a sense of inclusion that is attractive to people of all ages. We all want to feel included in something, and during a child’s formative years, that culture and inclusion can provide a strong support upon which to build their identity.
This can be very good for those children. Involvement in sport and identification as an athlete can have very positive results for a child’s socialization. In 2011, a study led by Sohaila Shakib focused on youth and their perception of themselves through sports. Looking at students in grades 3 through 12, the researchers looked at how involvement in sports changed their social status (or how they perceived their social status to be, at the very least). The responses they received were almost unanimously great. Across all differing genders, grades, and socioeconomic statuses, the study found that kids who were taking part in sports were more likely to consider themselves popular among their peers. Whether the athletes were actually more popular than non-athletes or not is up for debate, but the fact is that the kids taking part in sports at least believe that they are popular. How the children perceive themselves has a big impact on how they choose to identify themselves, and with the positive social benefits that the students see from being an athlete, it is no wonder that they hold being an athlete in such high regards. In fact, the male youth in that study considered sports to be the most important criterion for popularity, with female youth ranking it second. It is clear that sports can play a big role in the social development of children.
However, it is always important to think about potential barriers for youth looking to take part in that socialization of sport. Male youth with a lower socioeconomic status (SES) were found to be more likely than those with a higher SES to consider sports to be the most important source of social status. These kids hold sports in the highest regard, but studies show that they are also the least likely to be able to get involved in those sports. One such study from Philip White and William McTeer showed that the time when involvement is most affected by SES is actually ages 6-9 in children. Public- and school-funded sports programs at these ages are a good way to help children get involved in sports without having to worry about the risk of costs inhibiting them.
With all of this being said, it’s no wonder that sports are considered such a massive part of life for school-age children. It provides them with a chance to work and grow through their formative years, a feeling of popularity and acceptance among their peers, and, arguably most importantly, an opportunity to learn things about who they are and who they want to be. With all of those things involved, it’s no wonder that those kids take so much pride in saying “I am an athlete”.
Journal Articles Mentioned:
Shakib, S., Veliz, P., Dunbar M.D., Sabo, D. (2001). Athletics as a source for social status among youth: Examining variation by gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Sociology of Sport Journal, 28, 303-328.
White, P., McTeer, W. (2012). Socioeconomic status and sport participation at different developmental stages during childhood and youth: Multivariate analyses using Canadian national survey data. Sociology of Sport Journal, 29, 186-209.