Aspen Institute’s Project Play Report Shows How High Schools Can Develop More Students Through Sports

Reimagining School Sports event March 10, featuring NFL star Najee Harris and NFHS CEO Karissa Niehoff, will highlight opportunities to improve health outcomes

Washington, DC, March 09, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- High school sports play an important role in addressing the health and educational needs of students, but the traditional model needs to be updated to serve more of them through community partnerships, intramurals, student-led clubs and other innovations that supplement the standard menu of interscholastic teams.

A new Aspen Institute report, Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Develop Every Student Through Sports, offers eight strategies to help principals and school leaders do that, with 40 ideas on how policymakers, industry and other stakeholders can support.

The playbook is the product of two years of research with input from more than 60 experts. The recommendations recognize the documented physical, mental, academic and social benefits of playing sports or other forms of physical activity – and the growing needs of students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before COVID-19, fewer than four in 10 students played sports in public high schools and only 23% received the recommended level of physical activity. During the pandemic, physical activity rates fell and mental health challenges intensified. The good news: students reported growing interest in sports during this period, presenting a historic opportunity for schools to reimagine their approach to the delivery of sport and fitness programs.

Read the full report: (PDF version is available here)

On March 10 (12-1:30 pm EST), the Aspen Institute will hold a free, online event to explore the report’s strategies with national and local experts. Speakers will include Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (Athletes for Hope) and National Federation of State High School Associations CEO Karissa Niehoff. View the agenda and register here.

The school sports model was last updated 50 years ago through Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in educational opportunities, including sports participation. The legislation created millions of new opportunities for girls to play, but gaps remain with boys, and overall participation in high school sports has stagnated.

The playbook aims to help schools provide or connect more students with health-promoting sport activities, especially youth from underrepresented populations. Among them: racial, ethnic and religious minorities; students who have a disability; late bloomers in sports; youth who identify as LGBTQ; refugees; homeless students; students with family or job responsibilities after school; and those who want to be physically active but find interscholastic sports too focused on competition.

The eight strategies proposed in the report:

  1. Align School Sports with School Mission
  2. Understand Your Student Population
  3. Create Personal Activity Plans
  4. Introduce Other Forms of Play
  5. Develop Community Partnerships
  6. Bolster Coaching Education
  7. Prioritize Health and Safety
  8. Measure and Evaluate Programs

The strategies were informed by results of a national high school student survey that identified strong interest in more casual sport and fitness-focused activities, including strength training, biking, skateboarding, yoga, dance and climbing. Strategies and ideas in the playbook were also sourced from the Aspen Institute’s national search for the most innovative high school sports programs in the country, with the help of partners in the Reimagining School Sports initiative. Adidas/BOKS, The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation and Hospital for Special Surgery awarded a total of $160,000 to eight exemplary schools. Learn about the winners and read previous reports at

“High school sports are a revered institution in American life,” said Tom Farrey, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program Executive Director. “Now, let’s make them accessible to every student who wants to play or just be active, regardless of background or ability. We owe that to them, with all the challenges that students face in the 21st century.”

Project Partners

Kathleen Tullie, BOKS, Founder: “Our culture has created sport as a spectator sport, and we need to reverse that and create a culture of participants. We need to even the playing field and make sure all students have access to be participants. In a time period where mental illness is the next pandemic, movement and play need to be for all. It is critical for their future.”

Aimee Watters, The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation, Executive Director: “We know the research on the value of young people playing sports. They simply do better in life. But fewer than four in 10 students play in high school – even with the progress made by Title IX with girls. Now, physical inactivity rates are rising. Schools are a natural place for kids to connect with sport, and this report gives schools some tools to help make their programs meaningful and successful.”

Joseph Janosky, Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), Directory of Injury Prevention Programs: “Students emerge from high school with healthy living habits for life – or they don’t. They move into adulthood with a love of sport and fitness – or bodies that limit their ability to move well. At HSS, we want to help schools develop ideas and opportunities to prevent joint and other injuries in student athletes.”

Karissa Niehoff, National Federation of State High School Associations, CEO (Aspen Institute advisory group member): “We encourage high schools to examine their activities and sports offerings and take this opportunity to reach as many students as possible in new ways. A reimagined school sports model that keeps high school education-based sports activities at its core is a proven road map for success.”

View this release online here.


About Project Play

An initiative of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, Project Play develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps stakeholders build healthy communities through sports. For more information, visit

About the Aspen Institute

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, and an international network of partners.


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