When it comes to children's physical activity, some parents may think that playing outside or going to the swimming pool are sufficient to keep kids happy and healthy. But recent studies have made it clear that organized interscholastic sports have a multitude of benefits for children including decreased obesity, higher attention spans, better self-discipline, and increased test scores; whereas unstructured activities have no effect on classroom engagement. Starting kids in sports at a young age may help them physically, mentally, and socially as they grow, shaping them into bright, confident, and successful human beings.
Let's start at one of the most fundamental parts of a child's life – school. There is a strong correlation between organized physical activity and higher academic performance in children and young adults, according to studies from around the country. For instance, a Nebraska study used a shuttle-run with a set time to judge children's fitness levels and found that the children with better times scored higher on the state's standardized tests. Similarly, a California study showed that children who took longer than 12 minutes to run a mile scored lower on standardized tests than those who were more physically fit.
Children who are more active tend to show greater attention spans and faster cognitive speed, making those standardized tests easier for them. And if they start sports at a young age, as they grow older, they become much more disciplined in the classroom than kids who do not play sports. A recent study from the University of Montreal showed that kids who started organized sports in kindergarten were significantly better at following instructions and staying focused in the classroom by the time they reached the fourth grade. Professor Linda Pagani, who led the study, said, “There is something specific to the sporting environment — perhaps the unique sense of belonging to a team, to a special group with a common goal — that appears to help kids understand the importance of respecting the rules and honoring responsibilities.”
Teens also benefit greatly from team sports, especially when it comes to their confidence levels. During these shaky yet formative years, sports can help teens boost their self-esteem, make friends with positive school-oriented peers, and keep them focused in the classroom (which may also prepare them for the workplace in the future). All of these factors, along with the competitive nature of sports, help teens perform better academically. Researchers from the University of South Carolina and Pennsylvania State University found that compared to academic or performing arts clubs like debate or drama, team sports were the only extracurricular activity to have a lasting and identifiable effect on student's grades across all types of schools. Teens who play sports are also more likely to move on to higher education, receive a bachelor's degree, and eventually receive a good income.
The reality is that despite all of the benefits of interscholastic sports, participation is slowly declining. In today's digital world, it's no surprise that children are choosing screens over sports, with their screen time measuring at more than 27 hours per week. Another factor is coach aggressiveness which makes kids want to quit. Being a coach, especially with young children, is much more than just training teams to win. A good coach needs to create a positive learning experience and be aware of players' ages, skill levels, and emotions. It's a tough job, but great coaches can lead to more participation and growth.
Another way to increase participation and promote sports programs is to provide a wider range of sports. Not every kid can shoot a 3-pointer but maybe they can swim a 200 butterfly stroke in less than 3 minutes. Giving kids options highly increases interest and participation. Kids are also more likely to play if the focus is on having fun rather than winning. Working to reduce the chance of injury can settle parents worries about putting their children in sports. And improving support for girls' sports can greatly increase their participation, which is has risen 18% since 2000.
Although the idea is to get kids involved with interscholastic sports, there are even ways to get kids moving in the classroom. One way is through SPARK, a program that uses simple equipment to provide physical activities and games for students before and after school, and during short breaks throughout the school day. Another program is BOKS, funded by Reebok, which shows teachers how to lead similar physical activities. Teachers can also incorporate kinesthetic activities in the classroom, like musical chairs or board races to achieve academic learning goals while moving.
By implementing more sports programs and physical activities in schools, we can help to mold a more focused, driven, healthy, and happy generation of children with exceedingly bright futures.