Sending kindergarten children off to karate or football lessons after school isn’t just a good way to give parents some extra breathing space. Now research has found a link between children who did organised extracurricular sports at kindergarten and their levels of discipline in the classroom as they become young adolescents.
Getting children moving when they are four or five-years-old is an important investment for their later cardiovascular health, but it can also bring benefits to their brain – their ability to concentrate and apply themselves in class. At the same time, young children with good “brain health” are also more likely to persevere at sports when they’re older.
A good way to measure brain health in kindergarten is to ask teachers if kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing in class. We call this classroom engagement. Our study analysed the findings of research with a cohort of 935 children randomly selected at birth in 1997 and 1998 from the Canadian province of Quebec, otherwise known as the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development.
At both kindergarten and fourth grade (nine to ten years old), teachers reported on the children’s level of classroom engagement, which represents a good indicator of self-discipline and overall brain health. They were looking out for whether the child played and worked cooperatively with other children, whether they demonstrated self-control and showed self-confidence. They were also looking for whether they followed directions, rules and instructions, completed work on time, worked autonomously and were capable of solving problems.
Parents then also reported on how often the children participated in specific types of extracurricular activities: team sports, structured activities such as dance or karate, unstructured activities, such as physical play with their friends or alone, and non-physical activities such as music.
Our research controlled for a number of competing factors, such as children’s gender, IQ, motor skills and body mass index, as well as their family background and their mother’s level of education. That way, our findings could not be explained with excuses such as some boys or girls liked team sports more, or some kids had better motor skills than others, or had more opportunities to participate in sports.
Ready to concentrate
We found that those children who did more structured physical activity in kindergarten were associated with higher levels of classroom engagement when they were in fourth grade. So, early team sports with practice sessions and a coach lead to better concentration and self-control in class. Team sports involve coaches and instructors who foster self-control, perseverence, and practicing motor skills. These all become important in the formula for school success.
At the same time, we also found that those children who were already well-engaged and had good self-discipline in the classroom in kindergarten went on to participate in more team sports in the fourth grade. This shows what we psychologists call “developmental continuity”, and basically says that children who are already well disciplined will persevere with ease. On the other hand, it also underscores the importance of the first finding that getting children more involved in structured team sports and physical activities early on will help them develop the skills they will need to persevere, both in and outside of the classroom.
These findings suggest mutual benefits between physical activity and classroom engagement from kindergarten to fourth grade. Those children who were more involved in team sports, or structured physical activities such as dance or gymnastics when they were in kindergarten were more likely to persevere with more weekly sessions of structured physical activity as they went up the school. This suggests opportunities to participate in supervised physical activities or sports teams may help children develop healthy dispositions and behaviours in emerging adolescence.
Both unstructured physical activity –- playing with friends –- and non-physical activities such as music or art were unrelated to team sports or physical activities in fourth grade. This tells us that less structured early environments lead to children who are less likely to persevere at physical activity.
Because being sedentary is not a healthy lifestyle choice, getting children out there moving around has implications for later cardiovascular health. However, we must also remember that good health habits bear upon the brain and could ultimately prevent children dropping out of school. Therefore, if we invested more in providing structured physical activities like team sports for all children, we would likely be saving money over the long-term by fostering better life habits and personal skills.