Parents often look to recreational and organized sports leagues as a way to ensure their children are physically active. But steep registration fees can prevent parents on a tight budget from enrolling their children in such programs.
That’s changing in California’s Contra Costa County, where a group of volunteer parent advocates have spent the past five years working with local cities on a project to offer low-cost sports classes for young children.
“They’re building community, they’re just really invested in the project and their communities,” said Tracy Irwin, public affairs manager for First 5 Contra Costa, which supports efforts that help children under 5 live healthy. “They’re parents themselves. Not only do they want to improve the lives of their own children, but also the community in which they live.”
The effort began when the parent-advocates conducted a community needs assessment to find avenues to reduce childhood obesity. The group discovered that while many parents wanted to enroll their kids in classes to help them be physically active, they simply couldn’t afford it.
The advocates met with park and recreation departments in six cities, with the goal of offering low-cost classes for kids, including karate, soccer, swimming, dance and gymnastics. First 5 — which maintains steady funding through tobacco tax revenues — helped the cities pay for the classes, while parents did outreach to recruit participants. Families paid about $10 per class session.
More than 2,700 children have taken classes since the effort began. Last year alone, 744 children took part in 86 different sports classes, according to First 5.
Two of the cities, Bay Point and San Pablo, have continued to offer low-cost classes as part of their regular parks and recreation offerings. Both cities were able to secure additional outside funding to keep the programs going.
“These are difficult times. There’s not a lot of money out there, but they’ve been very inventive,” Irwin says.
Irwin adds that she knows first-hand how tough it can be for parents to afford recreation classes, as she recently paid about $250 to sign her son up for tee-ball. But she notes that such programs are vital to bringing down obesity rates, as the early years can set the pattern for lifelong activity.
Feedback from those who participated in one of the low-cost classes has been positive, Irwin says, and advocates are encouraged that the effort will have a big impact on kids’ health.
“Their kids now want to exercise more, to play the sports,” Irwin says. “They might do some of the moves at home that they learned at… the class.”