Children who played structured sports in kindergarten were found to be better at following instructions and staying focused in the classroom when they were in fourth grade.
Researchers at the University of Montreal and Sainte-Justine Children's Hospital studied 935 kids born in Quebec between the years of 1997 and 1998. The children's parents were asked about the time spent on sport and other physical activity, physical activity that was unstructured, and any other lessons the children took such as music lessons. Teachers rated the students on classroom engagement, aggression, and impulsivity, writes CBC News.
Children who are more engaged in the classroom setting are likely to work in a more cooperative manner, demonstrate more self-confidence, and follow directions and rules. These are behaviors that when practiced in childhood and adolescence will pay dividends on into adulthood.
"What we found was really a beautiful result," said the study's senior author, Linda Pagani, a professor of psychoeducation at the University of Montreal. "Kindergarten involvement in structured physical activity was associated or predicted better participation in classrooms as far as being engaged and involved in fourth grade, which is really good because the kids mentally, they're online in the classroom."
A structured activity, for this study, included practicing motor skills like batting a ball, doing hip-hop choreography, and practicing martial arts. In physical education class, students are told to run laps, but in a structured setting the coach or instructor guides the class on particular movements, placement, and following the directions for mastering a move.
Pagani says teachers who are instructing a physical activity are not only working on cardiovascular health but also on brain health, especially when kids are following instructions that involve "a sequence of different movements." She adds that the concentration skills needed for mastering reading comprehension, for example, can be developed when the brain gets a workout in other contexts like on the sports field.
The study found that in this case, more is better. Each time a child was involved in the structured activity, the level of "class engagement" went up 6%. Music lessons and unstructured play will probably show mental and physical benefits, but these activities did not have the pay off that structured physical activity had.
"In team sport, you have to show up on time, be ready and prepared," said Donald Mackey, director of the St. John's Soccer Club. "You work towards a certain objective as a team. That brings its challenges in communication."
Researchers accounted for other preexisting factors that could have influenced the study such as the child's physical fitness and cognitive abilities, the mother's education level, the level of the family's communication skills and general functioning. The team hopes the findings will assist authorities in reaching kids at risk for low levels of physical activity in order to fight against obesity and school drop-out rates.
US News and World Report's Mary Elizabeth Dallas quotes the study's leader:
"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 honoring responsibilities," Pagani noted.
The study, out this month, was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion. The subjects' kindergarten teachers were questioned, and parents were interviewed about their home life. After four years, the children's parents and teachers were re-surveyed. A cause-and-effect link was not proven, but the study did find an association between playing team sports and classroom success.
There was a second question the researchers were attempting to answer: Do kindergarten self-discipline characteristics predict fourth-grade participation in sports? The answer, according to the report was, "Children who were involved in sports at kindergarten, or in fact who were involved in any kind of structured activity, were likely to be involved in team sports by age ten. However, involvement in unstructured activities at kindergarten had no bearing on the child's future."
Researchers said they found that children who had better behavior in the kindergarten class were more likely to be involved in sports by age ten, Pagani said. They also discovered that children who were involved in team sports in kindergarten scored more highly in self-regulation by the time they reached fourth grade.
"Programs to help parents develop their child's self-regulation skills and the availability of extracurricular sports programs as early as kindergarten could help decrease the risk of kids being left behind," Pagani said.