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With youth sports back, ‘Now you’re seeing kids being kids again’

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 6/3/2021 Brion O'Connor
a group of people playing baseball on a field: Max Dunn connects on a hit during a Little League game in Peabody on May 12. © Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe Max Dunn connects on a hit during a Little League game in Peabody on May 12.

On Saturdays from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Peabody’s Gerald MacKillopcan look over the ball fields at the William Welch Sr. Elementary School and see dozens and dozens of local youngsters playing tee ball.

What a difference a year makes.

Last spring, Peabody Little League didn’t even offer a tee ball season. The program, as well as the league’s coach-pitch season, was shelved due to COVID-19 concerns. Though the league did offer three levels of play on a limited basis, the numbers were anemic, barely breaking 150. This year, the league has close to 350 children, ages 4 to 12, playing across five divisions.

“That’s big for us,” said MacKillop, the father of two players and league vice president. “Last year, it was about offering a Little League experience in a reduced capacity to keep all the kids safe, and we were able to do that. We’re pretty much back at our pre-COVID numbers, which is a testament to the work we did last year.”

During 2020’s truncated season, “a lot of what I heard was that playing Little League was the first time many of these kids saw their friends face-to-face in months,” MacKillop said. “Now you’re seeing kids being kids again. These kids bounce back real quick, when you can focus on all the good things.”

That familiar scene of children running willy-nilly across bright green playing fields, enjoying sports ranging from baseball to soccer to lacrosse, is being renewed in communities throughout Massachusetts as state-mandated pandemic precautions have slowly been eased.

“It was crushing to not have youth lacrosse last spring,” said Mike Brazis, president of Hingham Boys Youth Lacrosse. “We were shut down for the entire spring, though we ran some small fall programs and some winter indoor as well. This spring, the response has been amazing.”

The state in May dropped nearly all COVID-19 restrictions for outdoor youth sports, including the requirement that children wear masks when playing on the field. Coaches and referees still have to wear masks when they cannot properly social distance. Local programs can adopt rules stricter than the state, according to Christopher Fitzgerald, Weston’s recreation director and president of the Massachusetts Recreation and Parks Association.

The state also has eased COVID restrictions for summer camps. For outside activities, children can go mask-free but some social distancing requirements remain. For indoor activities, restrictions remain but have been eased, according to Fitzgerald. Individual communities can opt to adopt stricter rules.

Fitzgerald said the restrictions for Weston’s town-run summer camp — which his department is now developing with input from other town boards — “are going to be more relaxed than we had planned, but potentially more restrictive than the state guidelines.”

Fitzgerald said Weston’s spring and summer programs are “booming.” Due to the lingering COVID restrictions, the town is offering only three of its five summer camps, but “we sold out most weeks of those camps in a couple of hours.”

The same optimism applies to Weston’s independent youth soccer and Little League programs. “We have a Little League complex, and every week they’re scrambling to get an extra field or two just to be able to fit everything in,” Fitzgerald said.

The Boston Area Youth Soccer league decided not to adopt COVID-19 restrictions beyond the state requirements, but to allow each of its 53 member communities to do so, according to Needham’s Charlie Hurwitch, a board member with the group.

Sensitive to the fact that some families may object to dropping mask requirements in midseason, the league is asking that clubs make clear children can still wear masks and respect whatever decisions families make.

Hurwich expects some communities will simply follow the new guidelines, while others will opt to impose stricter ones. A few already have told the league they will continue requiring masks when children are playing.

Boston Area Youth Soccer rebounded from a difficult spring in 2020 to host a fall program that ran at 75 percent capacity. This spring, capacity is closer to 90 percent.

“As far as the clubs that are playing, the numbers seem very close to back to normal. Not 100 percent, but very close,” said Hurwitch. “People are happy to be back playing soccer, having their kids in activities again, and a sense of normalcy.”

Chuck Dunn is the president of Lynn Youth Soccer, where he coached his three daughters. The program has 30 teams and more than 300 youngsters playing this spring.

“Everyone is very excited to be on the field again,” said Dunn. “Many spectators have made a point to thank the coaches and board members. It’s been rewarding, and reminded us all why we do what we do.”

The benefits extend far beyond the game itself.

“So much is gained from playing and coaching organized sports — physical activity, the social aspect, being part of a team, working towards goals, the sense of accomplishment,” Dunn said.

Following the new state guidelines, all Lynn Youth Soccer games are now being played with no masks but “we continue to encourage social distancing,” Dunn said.

In Peabody, Anne Carey-Stone’s 9-year-old son Nathan typically plays soccer, flag football, and baseball.

“In 2020, everything stopped in March,” she said. “School went remote in Peabody and that was it. No before- or after-school programs, no recess, no town sports. There was nothing to participate in.”

Now sports are up and running again, much to Carey-Stone’s relief.

“Team sports have built my son’s confidence, taught him the importance of teamwork, having fun, camaraderie, and being a good sportsman — losing gracefully as well as celebrating a team win,” she said. “He has so many friends that he’s met through sports.

“When [sports] weren’t available, I definitely worried more about his health, and the kids immediately became more sedentary with remote school rather than in person. I also worried about the social and mental health impact of the time away from his friends and teammates. Social isolation was just as worrisome as physical health.”

Her son agreed.

“When I didn’t have sports, I was sad because I didn’t get to go outside that much and we just had to really stay at home for most of the time,” said Nathan. “I’m very happy that they opened up, because I love playing sports.”

Globe correspondent Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net. John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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