Review of Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds

Messner, Michael A. and Musto, Michela. Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016. Pp. 256. Notes, indexes, and appendices. $90, cloth, $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Sam White

Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds is a welcome contribution to both the fields of Childhood Studies and Sport Studies. While primarily written from a sociology of sport perspective, this volume edited by Michael A. Messner and Michela Musto addresses the concern of the near invisibility of children within sport scholarship. As stated in the Introduction, “One reason for this lack of understanding is that scholars of sport have largely ignored kids as active participants-as athletes and fans-and have mostly failed to study the ways in which sport, both for good and for ill, is so often an important and meaningful part of the larger landscape of childhood” (p. 1-2).


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These eleven chapters focus on five areas: “kids’ experience of play; kids who do not play sports; kids as sport consumers; kids’ sport as a locus on intersectional social inequalities; and kids’ health and injuries in sport” (p. 7). By moving away from contemporary narratives that posit childhood as a state of inactivity as a result of technology, this volume does the often rare, but necessary work of treating children and youth as participants who are part of a complex sport landscape.

In “Surveying Youth Sports in America”, Don Sabo and Phillip Veliz use quantitative research to illustrate the ways in which data can give insight into the current sports climate for children. By examining “participation patterns in competitive organized youth sports” (p. 23) Sabo and Veliz point out how race, class, and gender can be markers for longitudinal sport participation. As noted in the chapter, data on sport mobility of children can be used to inform programming decisions, as well as physical health choices. However, when discussing positive aspects associated with sport and risks, the chapter falls into a trap of identifying sexual activity as a risk for female athletes. This marker of sexual activity of risk for female athletes, while making no mention of such a risk for male athletes, adds into the stigma of female adolescent sexuality.

Douglas Hartmann and Alex Manning’s “Kids of Color in the American Sporting Landscape” builds on research regarding participation rates in youth sport in relation to racial inequality. As noted by Hartmann and Manning, the issue is not only participation rates, but “differential treatment in the activities and programs in which they actually do participate” (p. 43-44). While previous studies have addressed obstacles to access in sport, few have identified how differential treatment shapes the ways in which racialized boys are positioned within the sporting landscape, particularly in white-middle class settings. Drawing from ethnographic research, the chapter also details the ways in which parents note the tie between youth sport and racial socialization. While the chapter mainly focuses on the experiences of boys, it would be beneficial to see the impact on girls as well.  Cheryl Cooky and Lauren Rauscher’s addresses the representation of racialized girls in sport through “Girls and the Racialization of Female Bodies in Sport Contexts.” Using a feminist media studies lens, Cooky and Rauscher highlight how girls interpret, reproduce, and transgress images of the female athlete. This emphasis on popular culture, sport, and girlhood gives a much needed perspective on how girls are active consumers in  sport through media.

Toben F. Nelson’s “Sport and the Childhood Obesity Epidemic” and Jeffrey Montez de Oca, Jeffery Scholes, and Brandon Meyer’s “The Children Are Our Future” both focus on physical activity, marketing, and public health. “Sport and the Childhood Obesity Epidemic” discusses the impact of the food and drink industry within parent and child consumer choices in the world of youth sport. Nelson does mention that his study primarily comes from an epidemiologist point of view-still it is important to reflect upon the ways in which excess weight has been constructed as going against a normative body and that bodies carrying excess weight can still be active and healthy.

“The Children Are Our Future” takes this idea of public health and social action and shifts the perspective. This chapter argues that the NFL, a corporate entity, has made a presence in schools under public health initiatives such as NFL Play 60 as well as partnerships with USA football through the pursuit of a neoliberalism approach to physical activity. “When the management of access to healthy alternatives for the citizenry moves from a public jurisdiction and into a corporatized private real, then “consumer citizenship” begins to replace social citizenship.” (p. 104). As the chapter illustrates, this is a way to integrate youth into the private marketplace as current and future NFL consumers.

Michela Musto’s chapter “Athletes in the Pool, Girls and Boys on Deck” traces how children construct and deconstruct gender relations. As noted by Musto, “the variable salience of gender played an important role in shaping the meanings swimmers associated with gender within and across different contexts at the pool” (p. 126). Musto’s ethnographic work uses interviews with young organized swimmers and shows how they understand gender within mixed gender situations. Murray J.N. Drummond’s chapter “The Voices of Boys on Sport, Health, and Physical Activity” also uses qualitative research to examine the discursive work that boys do in order to understand and process gender. Drummond’s chapter is a useful look at the ways in which masculinity and sporting culture intersect, especially within the lives of young boys. He addresses the themes: “tough sports-blood sports”, “boys are superior to girls”, and “muscles, men, and masculinity” (p. 149). Michael Kehler’s later chapter (chapter 10), “Examining Boys, Bodies, and PE Locker Room Spaces,” does similar work in understanding how masculinity shapes embodiment in physical education spaces. Drummond identifies the performative work that gender entails in relation to spatial areas such as the locker room and the gymnasium.

Chelsey M. Thul, Nicole M. LaVoi, Torrie F. Hazelfood, and Fatimah Hussein’s chapter “A Right to the Gym” stands out as a chapter that highlights the experiences of immigrant girls. In particular, this research focuses on East African girls participation in sport. They seek to “illuminate how East African Muslim immigrant girls . . . interpret, experience, and negotiate physical activity.” (p. 167). This chapter focuses on the voices of girls who participate, as well as examines how girls understand gendered space in their community recreation centers. Taken together, these chapters center research not just about children, but with children, and show the possibilities of including children’s voices in sport studies.

Ann Travers “Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Kids and the Binary Requirements of Sport Participation in North America” provides much needed scholarship in regards to non-binary youth sport participation. While the issues of access in sport have been relegated to race, class, and gender (and occasionally sexual orientation), transgender issues are very rarely mentioned. Travers’s chapter draws from interviews with the parents of transgender and gender-nonconforming young people. Identifying the sex segregated landscape of sport as “points of crisis for transgender and gender-nonconforming kids” (p.196), Travers encourages readers to think about ways in which sport landscape can be more inclusive.

The volume closes with A. James McKeever’s chapter “Park ‘Rats’ to Park ‘Daddies’.” As argued by McKeever, social class, age, and race are negotiated within spatial boundaries of the park and can also show “the possibilities and limitations of intergenerational mentoring within community-park-based sport programs.” (p.225). Drawing from auto-ethnographic and ethnographic work, McKeever focuses on how youth negotiate the geography of public parks. While organized and elite sport teams dominate youth studies sport scholarship, this chapter illustrates the need for youth studies sport scholarship to also focus on community recreation sport spaces

As a whole, this volume is a much needed contribution to the field of childhood and sport studies. However, Child’s Play is primarily a look at the sociology of sport and youth, rather than a comprehensive volume on sport studies and youth. In the future, I look forward to reading more historical, literary, and media studies works on the future of sport and youth.

Samantha White is a doctoral student in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-Camden. She can be reached at

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