While we all know the importance of physical activity for children’s health and wellbeing, making sure your kids actually get out and about can be a challenge, especially when we’re also juggling work, school, and let’s face it, general life. But of course, the importance of exercise cannot be understated, and as parents we’re always on the look out for ways to encourage physical activity.
Organised or community sport is a great way for kids to become more active more regularly, and with research showing that children’s participation in organised sports not only improves health and wellbeing but may also have beneficial impacts on educational outcomes, it’s certainly an appealing option.
Importantly, sports could be a way to boost educational outcomes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and this is the focus of new research conducted by the University of South Australia, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the University of Sydney.
Education is pivotal to improving opportunities for all Australians, but despite current initiatives to improve participation and achievement in education, Indigenous Australians continue to face educational disadvantage.
Although research shows that sport can have positive impacts on children’s academic achievement, little research exists in this space for indigenous communities.
Recently, I’ve been working with UTS indigenous researcher, Professor John Evans, to explore how sport can impact the academic performance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school-aged children. Our current work is part of the Foundation of Sport in Indigenous Communities (FOSIC), which is investigating the role of sport in indigenous communities.
Using data from four successive waves of Australia’s Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children, we followed the progress of 303 year five students to assess their cumulative sports participation against their academic performance. What we found, was that continued participation in organised sports was positively associated with better academic performance, although these were only considered to be statistically significant for numeracy.
Children who participated in sports achieved a seven per cent higher score in their PAT Maths assessment, and a five per cent higher score in their NAPLAN test. Incredibly, children who participated in sport across multiple years achieved numeracy skills were about 2-7 months more advanced than children who did less sport.
Recent findings from Prof Evans’ FOSIC project show that programs that encourage sport participation among in Indigenous children can increased school attendance and self-esteem. But why would sports participation improve numeracy?
Well, first of all, playing sport is very likely to involve exercise at moderate and vigorous intensities, and as research shows, aerobic exercise can increase brain circulation and improve neuroplasticity. Previous trials in this space have also shown that even very short bursts, vigorous physical activity can positively impact executive function and attention in children. One trial even showed improvements after only 12 minutes of exercise.
Secondly, playing sport requires cognitive effort. Children learn how to respond to feedback, how to master their skills, to work within rules, to devise strategies for success, and how to focus their attention. Essentially, sport is training how they think, and in this way may translate into improved learning and better academic performance.
Another possible explanation for students’ increased academic performance is the emotional and social skills that children develop during organised sport. Sport involves teamwork, discipline, and negotiation, which can all be translated into academic performance. Playing a sport builds a child’s self-esteem and resilience and provides them with a sense of belonging to community and the opportunity to learn from role models.
Additionally, when playing sports, children are less likely to be doing things that are less productive, in favour of things that are more beneficial and structured. One study on this topic found that children who were involved with a sports club once or twice a week, watched 28 minutes less television, than they normally have watched in a week.
Organised sport may also have an indirect effect on students’ performance by generally improving their psychosocial wellbeing. Sport can provide additional social interactions, which is significant, especially in rural and remote communities where such opportunities are limited.
It’s interesting to note, however, that despite the improvement in numeracy scores, the benefits of sport did not translate to literacy. This finding is consistent with conclusions of a systematic review of previous studies in other populations. At this stage, we’re not sure why sports benefit numeracy, but not literacy.
Some evidence suggests that exercise selectively activates regions of the brain that are also involved in mathematical operations – perhaps sport gives children the opportunity to apply mathematical concepts to real-life situations, and this transfers to numeracy skills. This makes sense when you consider that children will practice simple calculations in tehri head while playing sport, for example, ‘how much time is left in the game?’, or ‘how many more points do we need to win?’.
Of course, there is still much to learn. While our findings link continued sports participation across junior primary years with better numeracy skills, understanding the role of sports in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and learning from the communities themselves, is critical if to reducing educational disadvantage.
Although we don’t suggest that sports participation will be a cure-all for educational disadvantage, our study shows that it can help close the gap.