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Sports Help Disadvantaged Kids Succeed in School, Study Says

Sports could narrow the wealth gap in academic achievement, according to a new study.

Kids from families low-income families often do worse in school than students from rich families. In other words, success in school mirrors income inequality. But more equitable access to sports could help close this achievement gap, according to a new study.

Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds often have fewer opportunities to participate in organized sports or play in open spaces. Thirty-four percent of disadvantaged children play sports less than once a week compared to 13 percent of kids from higher-income families. But when they do get the chance, disadvantaged children experience stronger benefits from sports than rich kids do, according to a long-term study of more than 4,000 children in England that checked in with them at ages 7, 11, and 14.

“The attainment gap is a really complex problem, but we know that some of it is linked to less-advantaged children having poor self-regulation skills early in childhood,” Fotini Vasilopoulos, who led the study while a student researcher at University of Cambridge, said in a press release. “Physical activities that help them to do things like focus on a task or maintain attention could be part of the way to bridge that gap.”

Sports help boost performance at school in different ways, depending on age. For children around age 7, sports may help develop emotional regulation, or control over one’s own thoughts and feelings, which is linked to higher academic achievement. Children who grow up in disadvantaged settings often struggle with emotional regulation, which can present as frequent mood swings and outbursts. Sports such as swimming and ball sports can help them learn to control their emotions. Games that involve cooperation and that encourage kids to take responsibility for their actions are particularly good at this.

Kids who play sports in middle childhood, around age 11, are better at behavioral regulation, or the ability to manage one’s behavior and attention to achieve goals, which could help them achieve in school.

These findings come at a time when schools are considering how to make up for lost learning during the pandemic. “In the context of COVID in particular, there may be a real temptation to encourage schools to maximize classroom time to stop children falling behind,” said Michelle Ellefson, a cognitive scientist at the University of Cambridge. “This study is saying ‘think again’, because playtime and PE lessons benefit the mind in ways that children really need in order to do their best.”

Parents can act on their own to encourage their children to play more sports. However, the authors encourage policy changes to make sports more accessible for disadvantaged children.

“Even giving children less-structured opportunities to run around outside could be of real developmental importance,” Ellefson said. “We really need to ensure that physical activity does not become an area schools feel they can legitimately sacrifice to drive up academic attainment. It has a crucial part to play.”