The value of school sport

School sport, like other extra-curricular activities, is such an important part of a child’s education that it should not be possible to negotiate it away. But that is what happened when the department of basic education and teacher unions agreed that it was sufficient for teachers to work 1 800 hours in a school year, and that teachers need only be present at their place of work — their schools — for a minimum of seven hours each school day.

Seven hours of school for the 200 days of the school year comes to only 1 400 hours, so why is it that the majority of teachers are not prepared to use at least some of the remaining 400 hours to supervise and coach youngsters in the afternoons and at weekends on the sports fields provided for this purpose at their schools?

It would be better and safer for the children, and if research findings linking school sport and physical activity to academic achievement are to be believed, it would be better for the nation.

At the best schools sport and a host of other extra-curricular activities are an integral part of the education they offer. Their governors and those responsible for the day-to-day running of the school understand the value of these activities.

Sport and other extra-curricular activities create opportunities for collegiality and with it the sense of belonging and school pride that is a critical ingredient of every good school. Sport builds healthy bodies, encourages self-discipline, grows confidence and promotes positive social interaction. It is an essential component of good education and it is not a coincidence that schools in which there are high participation rates in sport and other extra-curricular activities are also the schools that produce the best academic results.

The “Charter of Physical Activity, Play and Well-being for Children and Youth in South Africa” which was drawn up in the early 1990s after wide consultation by the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, headed by sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes, provides some useful insights into why sport is important for young people and includes the following points:

  • South African youth are at increased risk of being inactive due to a lack of safe playing areas and sporting facilities, a lack of opportunities to be active, the increased use of technology-based entertainment and insufficient physical activity in the school day
  • Attitudes to life-long physical activity and health are determined in part by both the parental attitude to activity and exercise in the home as well as the experience of young people in physical activity, sport and play during their time at school.
  • Evidence from research suggests that school and community programmes that promote regular participation in physical activity and optimal nutritional choice in children could be among the most effective strategies for reducing the public health burden of chronic disease associated with sedentary life styles.

Evidence from extensive research investigating links between physical activity and brain function and physical activity and the academic performance of young people suggest that:

  • Increased physical activity results in increased brain function and nourishment, higher energy and concentration levels, increased self esteem and better behaviour, all of which may improve learning.
  • Brain function may benefit from physical activity due to increased energy generation as well as from time outside of the classroom or from studying or as a release from boredom.

One Californian study, which compared the fitness levels and academic achievements on standardised tests of nearly two million pupils in Grades 3, 6 and 9, found a direct correlation between academic achievement and student fitness levels.

The educational value of sport and other extra-curricular activities to the holistic development of children is too important for it to be treated as a luxury. It is an essential element of what constitutes a good and proper education and should be part of the educational programme of every school. Parents can play an important part in this regard and should insist, through their representation on the school governing body, that the education programme of the school includes a range of extra- curricular activities including both team and individual sport.

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