Healthy Life

Sports participation can have a powerful impact on a child’s development, both physically and mentally.

Research conducted in 2015 by Canada’s Université de Montréal found that organised extracurricular sports activities help children to develop and improve cognitive skills (like greater concentration capacity) that can greatly help them in the classroom.

“By the time they reached the fourth grade, kids who played structured sports were identifiably better at following instructions and remaining focused in the classroom,” said lead researcher Professor Linda Pagani. “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 honouring responsibilities.”

That’s consistent with what paediatricians are finding now, in the post-pandemic world. “There are two sides to this coin,” says Dr Melanie Dance, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Sandton. “One side is the amount of activity that children are doing; and the other is the amount of screen time that they’re spending. There is a lot of concern in the paediatric community, especially since Covid, that children are less and less active, and are spending more and more time in front of screens.”

That means they’re missing out on the tremendous benefits of taking part in sports.

Far-reaching benefits of children’s sport

A growing body of medical evidence confirms that playing team sports is positively associated with mental health for children and adolescents. And those benefits can be lifelong and far-reaching. “There’s a lot more to sport than the idea of winning and losing and developing physical skills,” said Jean Côté, head of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Canada’s Queen’s University. “Under the right conditions, youth sport can help children develop transferrable personal and social skills – citizenship qualities that they’ll retain throughout their lives.”

In 2011 Côté led a study that found that children get the best development experience from team sports when they have a cohesive team environment when they assess their own performance rather than comparing with others, and when they’re involved in enjoyably challenging practices.

Pagani’s research, meanwhile, found that sporting activities and attention skills often go hand in hand. “We found that those children who were specifically involved in team sports at kindergarten scored higher in self-regulation by the time they reached fourth grade,” she said.

The lesson here is to start your children early with sports, and – as far as possible – to limit their screen time. “A number of international paediatric associations, including South Africa’s, the American, Australian and British, have recommended that screen time be extremely limited in children under the age of five,” says Dr Dance. “I’ve seen research that shows that children are spending up to 25% of their waking time in front of screens. It’s horrific.”

Get the kids up and active, she says. “If at all possible, children should be introduced to daycare centres where unstructured outside play time is built into the daily programme.” There might be tears now, but the long-term benefits are undeniable.