December 2, 2011

Lessons learned: School sports are more than just a game

Kevin Guidi (blue jersey) prepares for the B.C. AAA high School championships at the Lucas sports centre in this 2002 file photo. Mark van Manen/Vancouver Sun

Education has come a long way from reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. The three Rs have been broadened to encompass the three As – academics, arts and athletics. The first provides students with the skills and knowledge they need to be productive citizens, the second unleashes their creativity to ensure society’s cultural vitality, and the third promotes health and fitness while instilling a love of sport.

Athletics tend to be the poor cousin in this triumvirate, particularly at the elementary level, but research suggests physical activity and sports should be acknowledged as crucial components in the learning process.

A paper by scholars Francois Trudeau and Roy J. Shephard published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2008 concluded that physical activity can be added to a school curriculum by taking time from other subjects without risk of hindering student academic achievement.

Their review of data suggests that not only would an additional hour a day devoted to physical activity at the expense of classroom time not have a negative effect on the academic performance of primary school students, but may actually yield a small gain in the grade point average. Physical activity, they determined, has positive influences on concentration, memory and classroom behaviour.

One experiment they cite is the 16-month Action School BC project involving 287 B.C. primary schoolchildren in fourth and fifth grades (nine to 11 years old). Teachers delivered 47 minutes more a week of physical activity than in control-group schools, with the result that students who had more physical activity had slightly higher average scores on the Canadian Achievement Test despite the decrease in academic time.

Data from 11 of 14 published studies that have investigated the link between physical activity and academic performance involving 58,000 students between 1967 and 2006 showed a positive correlation.

The Vancouver school board is well aware of the ancillary benefits of physical activity generally and sports in particular. In a recent donor appeal letter, the VSB states that involvement in sports offers students vital skills that complement physical well-being. “An ability to communicate effectively, a commitment to teamwork, and a bolstering of confidence are just some of these additional skills,” it says.

The VSB adds that, on top of regular physical education classes, it provides 30 extracurricular leagues for sports ranging from basketball and soccer to wrestling and table tennis. “Altogether, more than 20,000 students play on over 1,000 teams throughout the city. As well, most schools also have informal intramural sports teams.”

These extracurricular sports programs need money to pay for field renewal, gymnasiums, sports equipment and uniforms, and much of it needs to come from parent advisory councils, corporate and not-forprofit organizations and individuals since government bodies that hold the purse strings seem unconvinced of the vital role sports can play in the education system.

They should recognize sports in school is an investment that pays dividends. For instance, a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that junior high and high school teens who participated in recreational sports on a consistent basis had better eating habits than their nonfitness-minded peers.

Increasing amounts of leisure time spent on the Internet, watching television and playing computer games and climbing rates of childhood obesity (which have tripled during the last 30 years) highlight the need to keep kids active and eating well in order to lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy habits.

Elementary students who play sports are more likely to become active teens who, in turn, are more likely to be active adults. And being active, according to the World Health Organization, is one of the most important ways to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and a range of other debilitating ailments. Not only do healthy people enjoy a higher quality of life, but the economy benefits from costs savings and productivity gains associated with workplace wellness.

It’s not just about health and grades, of course. Participation in school sports gives kids a sense of belonging and of accomplishment when the game is played well. They learn to be part of a team and to share success and failure. They discover the value of friendship, mutual respect and cooperation, how to set goals, to strategize and to plan – all important skills to acquire in preparation for adulthood.

Furthermore, kids who play sports are less likely than those who don’t to smoke, take drugs or commit crimes.

Not all children enjoy team sports but most schools also offer physical activities that emphasize individual achievement, such as track and field events.

Sports teaches some tough lessons too – that the best team may not always win, that people sometimes cheat, that referee calls aren’t always fair and that 110-per-cent effort may not carry the day- and that despite it all, you have to come back and play again. Disappointments build character and resilience to cope with the hard knocks later in life.

So, school is more than a place where children learn to read and write; it is where they develop into healthy, active, well-adjusted citizens of the world equipped with the knowledge, capabilities and social skills to make a difference.

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