This article was compiled from material contributed by the Wilton Soccer Association.
Three years ago, the Free Play Matters Task Force of the Wilton Youth Council launched its effort to bring more free play opportunities to the children of Wilton through advocacy and collaboration with the Wilton Public Schools and other organizations, such as the Riverbrook YMCA and Woodcock Nature Center.
Now, you can add the Wilton Soccer Association (WSA) to that list. Starting in Fall 2021, WSA and the Free Play Task Force have teamed up to launch a refreshed program for third through eighth graders which has been appropriately named, “Just for Kicks!”
Just for Kicks! builds upon the WSA’s very successful third through eighth-grade in-town soccer program, which has a stated goal to bring more kids out to the fields to provide fitness, fun and friendships through soccer.
Officials from both groups say the new coed program (one of the only of its kind that brings boys and girls together in play) is highly accessible by way of low price point and fits conveniently into schedules (after school clinics and Saturday morning gameplay sessions).
The players will learn soccer skills and enjoy free play opportunities that benefit every child — those looking to grow in soccer and those simply looking for a healthy, activity among friends and potential new friends.
“Overscheduling of children’s lives was a big concern of the task force,” said Genevieve Eason, executive director of the Wilton Youth Council. “In past and recent years we have seen the impact in rising levels of anxiety, depression and stress in children — not just in teens, but the younger set as well. We were concerned children were missing out on the opportunity to just play.”
Similarly, at about the same time, the WSA realized that “youth sports had become more expensive, more focused on the most competitive players and increasingly disconnected from the community,” said Jason Partenza, WSA president and parent volunteer. “As a result, many children that were looking to just play were left without any viable or welcoming opportunities.”
Partenza added, “while WSA believes that hometown-based competitive teams are extremely important and valuable (when done right), the organization also strongly believes that high quality, inclusive and participation-centric youth activities must be offered in parallel.”
For the WSA, the opportunity to offer those free play opportunities was a natural extension of its mission to positively contribute to the growth of children and the Wilton community by reinforcing values such as participation, sportsmanship, teamwork, integrity and respect for others.
“Soccer is an easy-to-understand sport for any child,” said Steve Francia, parent volunteer director of the WSA third through eighth-grade intramural program. “The game is fluid and free-form by definition. Time will be spent on fun exercises in agility, learning of new skills, and fun team play. We think it’s extremely valuable to help kids develop not only in soccer, but as people too.”
Generously contributing to the fun is the Kick for Nick Foundation, which honors the legacy of Wilton hero, PFC Nick Madaras, who used the gift of a soccer ball to bring kids and cultures together in war-torn environments. Kick for Nick will be donating a free soccer ball for every child who joins the program this fall.
Rosalie Witt of the Free Play Matters Task Force emphasized that the program is an environment fit for all children. “It offers a combination of no pressure, enough organizational structure to run smoothly and space to play freely that is very hard to find elsewhere these days. We are excited to watch the program grow.”
It’s also targeted to an age group that child development experts say the drop-off in participation in physical activities is the highest and where the value of free play is immensely important to the development and confidence of children.
“Our offerings for children in kindergarten through second grade are among the most well-participated in town, with nearly 350 participants this past spring,” said Jennifer Soudagar, parent volunteer director of WSA’s K-to-second/third-grade program. “We’d love to see every one of those children continue to play beyond second grade in either our more competitive programs or the in-town intramural offering that suits them, as well as welcome new players all along the way. It is never too late to make new friends!”
To help fund the program in the future and ensure every child is able to participate, WSA has applied for and been approved by the 2021 Connecticut Neighborhood Assistance Act Tax Credit Program, which enables businesses to make donations to the program at an advantaged 60% tax credit. Any funds received will help to maintain low fees for the program in future seasons and provide financial assistance to families in need so every child may play. Any business with an interest in the youth of our Wilton community may inquire about opportunities to offer support by emailing the WSA.
Go to the WSA website for more information on the “Just for Kicks” program and the WSA’s upcoming fall season, which begins in early September. For more information about the efforts of the Free Play Matters Task check out the Wilton Youth Council online.