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How Nike Aims to Inspire a Lifetime of Play

Nike has always been about listening to the voice of the athlete — and that includes kid athletes of all ages and their creative, spontaneous and joyful ways of embracing movement.

What the brand has heard from its youngest fans is that Generation Alpha doesn’t connect with the traditional view of sport, its set rules, structure and, often, pressure. Stereotypical, gender-specific product and experiences don’t resonate with youth today. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons 70 percent of kids who participate in organized sports drop out by the age of 13.

Nike saw this reality and is evolving how it serves kids and the adults who care for and about them. The result is a new approach that’s progressive, innovative and inclusive — and celebrates the love of movement the team hopes to instill in kids for a lifetime.

Here, four Nike leaders dive into how this foundational plan came together and why it’s essential to how the brand operates now and in the future.

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Cal Dowers
Global Vice President and General Manager for Nike Kids

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Caitlin Morris
Vice President of Social & Community Impact for Nike

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Whitney Pinfold
Creative Director of Nike Kids Apparel

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Kevin Dodson
Global Vice President for Kids Footwear Product

Championing the Idea of Play

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Cal Dowers

Nike is laser-focused on the idea of play because play is the foundation of sport. If you come up with a new dance, if you’re playing tag with your friends, to us, that’s sport too, and you’re an athlete. Our ultimate goal is to help kids make sport a daily habit for a lifetime, and I think that starts by reframing the discussion so that you don’t “do sports,” you “play sports.”

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Caitlin Morris

I couldn’t agree more. Play isn’t anything new for Nike. We’ve invested in play for kids in our community programs for decades. And the idea that sport won’t thrive if kids aren’t playing and moving is true and pressing: Only one in five kids today get the physical activity they need to be successful. We know that active kids do better, at home, at school, and in life. And like Cal said, we want to help kids have the ability, confidence and desire to play, however they envision it.

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Whitney Pinfold

From an apparel-design and product-creation point of view, focusing on play allows us to capture and serve all forms of movement and personal expression. Instead of just solving for a single sport-specific problem, we’re looking at how to help kids constantly move from activity to activity — practicing cartwheels in the backyard, roller skating in their garage, trying to best their last long-jump PR.

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Kevin Dodson

Also? Play is fun. Play means movement, freedom, creativity. And I think we all know that the benefits of play are limitless in any child’s development. For footwear, a play focus allows us to zero in on the physical and emotional benefits that can get kids moving more often. The product not only supercharges the opportunity, it gets anything that could be a barrier out of the way.

Showing Our Kids-First Approach

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Cal Dowers

We committed to a kids-first mindset, from the products we make to how we communicate to how we act as a resource for parents. The point is to spark the joy of play for and with the next generation.

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Caitlin Morris

And when we work with our 124-plus community partners around the world through our Made to Play commitment, that also means putting kids at the center. One of our program design filters was “six isn’t 16,” and that lead to steps like lowering basketball hoops so the equipment is right-sized for kids just learning the game. It may seem basic, but it makes a huge difference in the kids’ experience of the sport.

One of my favorite examples of this is a program called JUMP-JAM, which we support in Japan with the Foundation for the Promotion of Sound Growth in Children. With JUMP-JAM, the idea is simple: Let kids design their play experience. Kids announce when the program happens at the community center, and they help pick the games. One fifth-grader said she recruited more kids into JUMP-JAM by promising that dodgeball was not on the menu! Kids know what’s fun, so we let them be in charge.

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Whitney Pinfold

We look at solving problems that are kid-centric too, and at removing barriers to play. We’re not sizing down adult innovations, we’re listening to what kids say they need. What’s going to make them more comfortable, both physically and emotionally? What’s going to get them into their clothes faster, their shoes faster, so that they can get up and play faster?

To me, the work is personally powerful. I think about growing up, going through my development stages as a girl, and feeling super uncomfortable in my own skin. Now, being able to help provide solutions to make sport more comfortable for girls as they’re developing and becoming women, and normalizing that conversation, is so rewarding.

Committing to a Dual Audience

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Cal Dowers

Core to our strategy is paying equal attention to the Gen Alpha athlete and who we’re calling “the empowering adult.” We inspire the Gen Alpha athlete to be active and play and participate in sport on their terms. And we serve the empowering adult because we know that they’re the kid’s first hero, first stylist, first coach.

Thinking about both kid and adult allows us to see opportunities more clearly, understand the people we’re serving more deeply, and be more effective in how we deliver product, services and experiences that they need, when they need it. For example, during the pandemic, we heard from parents that they wanted to know how to motivate their kids to get moving, to be more active. We wanted to be a partner in making that happen. That’s why we created a suite of digital tools, like the ICOACHKIDS coaching essentials through our partnership with ICOACHKIDS, which is a five-step guide for any adult to help coach kids through play and sport, and Playlist, a YouTube series designed to inspire kids to move.

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Caitlin Morris

And as many of us are parents ourselves, we knew appealing to Mom and Dad was key, because igniting the joy of play is an intergenerational cycle. Parents who are active are six times more likely to have active kids. You can’t really separate the two. One of the greatest things we’ve seen a parent can do as a “coach” for their kid is to encourage them, to say, “I love to watch you play.” I think of my son, who fences. I don’t fence, and I can’t get in there and give him pointers — which, really, is such a benefit to him — but I do say, “Go, honey! Great job!” And that’s really what he wants to hear.

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Kevin Dodson

From a product lens too, taking account of the adults’ experience along with the kids’ is crucial. One great example is the early weeks of walking. We know those first weeks are instrumental in shaping a person’s gait for the rest of their life. We’re focused on how we create product to serve that developmental need, but we also want to arm parents with knowledge about the right products to put on their kids and the “why” behind it.

Expanding How We Think of Design

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Kevin Dodson

We want to create product that caters to all forms of play, and we want all children to have the opportunity to use it. One way we’re doing that is with Nike FlyEase, a product line designed to allow kids of every physical ability to get their shoes or clothing on easily, with closure systems that are quick, intuitive, easy.

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Whitney Pinfold

I’d say inclusivity is our No. 1 priority. You see it in sizing — making sure that we have an extended range, that anyone can access our product — and in design, ensuring that any kid — him, her or they — has a full spectrum of color, graphics and material choices to express themselves authentically. Finally, price point accessibility. We make sure to have a range there too, so our product is truly accessible for anyone to move and play.

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Caitlin Morris

Cultural inclusion comes to mind too. I think of our work to donate sport hijabs to girls through our community partnerships. For girls who choose to wear a hijab, that makes a huge difference to them and in their community, and especially when we also know girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys, and sometimes the reason is just culture.

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Whitney Pinfold

We also use sustainability as a first filter in our design, because we feel a responsibility to protect kids’ future playground. It’s why we choose to convert materials into recycled versions or use waste-generated materials when we can. We’re thinking about marker efficiency and trim usage and, particularly for kids, durability. How can we make a product that’s more durable and will live through all of the kid’s uses, and can be passed down to siblings, cousins, friends and even the next generation?

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Kevin Dodson

As a father to three kids ages 2 to 10 years old, that last point is massive in our house. And at work, sustainable, durable product is part of every conversation and decision we make. Our philosophy is, use less, select better, build smarter. When you do that, you naturally take a more innovative approach, and you end up creating better-performing products too.

Read More: Apparel Leadership