The question of how best to raise our children must be as old as the task of parenting itself. How best can we impart the skills, values and priorities necessary to sustain a well-balanced adult life?
There is no simple solution (as any parent will know). However, there are certain activities that undoubtedly contribute to the positive development of our kids. There is a growing mountain of evidence demonstrating that sport and general physical activity should be included among the essentials. At a time when the World Health Organisation reports rising levels of obesity, including child obesity (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/), it might seem quaint to reaffirm the obvious necessity of sport and physical activity for the wellbeing of children, but the benefits extend well beyond the obvious. Let’s take a look at all positive effects sports participation has on the young ‘uns.
Exercise and Health
The first and perhaps most obvious benefit has already been mentioned: health and fitness. Regular physical activity is essential for children as they grow into their body. Exercise, of any variety, helps prevent obesity and high blood pressure and contributes to building and maintaining healthy bones, muscles and joints, as well as a host of other positive effects discussed in a recent OSM blog. A comprehensive study and analysis carried out by the United States National Institutes of Health in 2016 looked at a trove of existing research and found that leisure-time physical activity is associated with reduced risk of 13 different types of cancer, including breast, colon, liver and myeloid leukaemia. And, because participation in sport as a child is strongly correlated with the maintenance of regular physical activity as an adult, the cumulative effect of playing sports as a kid can significantly influence overall health over a lifetime.
Unstructured physical activity is a useful and effective means to improving physical health. However, team sports are particularly valuable for teaching kids’ social skills. Whether it’s football, rugby, netball or synchronised swimming, learning to work together with others is essential. Not only do children learn to interact effectively with teammates, but they will necessarily learn to respect opponents and behave graciously in victory or defeat. There are myriad lessons in leadership, camaraderie and sportsmanship that will help them throughout their personal and professional lives. Because the default mode for children is often and understandably guided by varying degrees of egocentricity, playing alongside others also helps them think about others and appreciate the successes of their teammates and, if the coach is a good role-model, maybe even the successes of the opposition.
Discipline & Academic Success
One of the understated benefits of sports participation is its positive academic impact. It might be a little counter-intuitive, but it’s true: playing sport helps at school – there has been a (metaphorical) ton of research on this. When Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a systematic review of 50 studies examining the effect of school-based physical activity on academic performance, she discovered a strong positive association. Many of the studies demonstrated that even brief instances of physical activity subsequently helped improve the duration and intensity of concentration. None of the research demonstrated any negative impact.
The effect of organised sport was examined in a Canadian longitudinal study for the Journal of Lifestyle Change. This tracked children from kindergarten through to year four, concluding that organised sport aids children in developing and improving cognitive skills. These studies consider the positive academic effects to be partially a result of changes in attitudes that result in enhanced concentration and improved classroom behaviour. However, it may also result purely from fitness and healthiness: The American College of Sports Medicine discovered that middle-school students who performed best on fitness tests – gauging aerobic capacity, strength, endurance and body composition – also performed better academically. The study, which included 338 students, showed that the fittest kids scored nearly 30 percent higher on standardised tests than the least-fit group. Moreover, the less-fit students received grades in their core subjects that were 13 percent to 20 percent lower than their fitter classmates.
Another of the underrated but essential impacts of sports participation is its effect on self-esteem. Sports offer an opportunity for children to test and ultimately trust their abilities: pushing their boundaries and improving their skills through practice and play. Praise and encouragement from parents, coaches and teammates help instill a sense of self-worth and pride, as does the achievement of personal goals. Even when praise is not forthcoming or victories are in short supply, sport teaches children to receive constructive criticism well and to learn from disappointments – at least when managed properly. Of course, an excessive focus on trophies, winning, tries or goals may be an impediment to developing self-esteem and confidence. However, when expectations and priorities are managed properly by coaches and parents, this should not be a problem. For the most part, sport is an opportunity for children to expand their ambitions and – particularly for girls who are often victim to limiting expectations – overcome perceived limitations.
Overall, sports participation and general physical activity are hugely important for our children. But, what’s more, kids love to be active! It’s fair to say that supporting that impulse is one of the best things parents can do. Let us know in the comments what benefits you have seen from kids’ physical pursuits!