As the world finally starts to look to a post-pandemic future, now seems a good moment to explore the benefits international schools can confer on young people by providing them with a good sports and enrichment programme.

To set the scene, there is a wonderful quote from former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan:

“Sport can bridge difficulties. Sport can bridge cultures. Sport can bridge conflicts. Sport is the best school of life.”

The idea of sport as a global language that brings people together is not new; but what we are increasingly recognising is the fact that its benefits go far beyond even this.

As Kofi Annan said in the same speech, “When young people participate in sports or have access to physical education, they can experience real exhilaration even as they learn the ideals of teamwork and tolerance.” These are the values instilled by the modern Olympic Games, but they are also values many international schools seek to live out through enrichment programmes that offer students the chance to develop as individuals – and maintain good physical and mental health – through their participation in sports.

Sport improves students’ wellbeing, confidence and schoolwork

On that note, and with the mental health impact of the pandemic already widely documented, it was interesting to read the results of research from Sheffield Hallam University in conjunction with Sport England. In a survey that quizzed over 60,000 students and 4,000 teachers on their attitudes to physical and mental health and work, researchers found that getting physically active can “improve pupils’ mood, confidence and schoolwork.”

Of course, when schools were closed and stay-at-home orders put in place at the start of the pandemic, children around the world were faced with fewer opportunities to get active. Yet the research found that 70% of active children consider themselves happy compared with only 50% of inactive ones. Similarly, 76% of active children consider themselves confident compared with just 38% of inactive ones. 93% of staff agreed that “being active benefits pupil behaviour”, while 92% say it has “positive effects on schoolwork”.

The research concludes that “helping children and young people to get active during school can play a vital role in helping them catch up on work missed during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, and in supporting their mental health.” As Sports England CEO Tim Hollingsworth comments in the report, the findings of the research “will also help staff to take a whole school approach to healthy lifestyles, creating opportunities before, after and throughout the school day.”

The mental health benefits of taking part in sports

The Sport England research is by no means the only study into the impact of sports on mental health – they are numerous. In a paper titled Benefits of Extracurricular Participation in Early Adolescence: Associations with Peer Belonging and Mental Health, researchers set out to explore a little-understood area – “the stability and change in extracurricular participation from middle childhood to early adolescence” – building on what we already recognise as the positive role played by extracurricular activities in young people’s development.

The study found that taking part in sports and other activities “was associated with better mental health over time” and “higher levels of peer belonging”. This suggests that schools that encourage their students to take part in sport can engender a closer sense of community through doing so – and that “removing potential barriers to involvement before the onset of adolescence” is of great importance.

Physically active learning

Of course, physical activity is not limited solely to participation in sports; enrichment programmes can have a more academic basis, but with a ‘physically active learning’ (PAL) element. PAL aims to tackle the fact that the school experience is sedentary in nature, and while little is yet known about the science behind it, the early results are encouraging.

One study looked at ‘The impact of physically active learning during the school day on children’s physical activity levels, time on task and learning behaviours and academic outcomes’ and concluded that “No evidence was found to suggest PAL had a negative effect on children’s academic outcomes, and PAL could positively impact on children’s concentration.” Indeed, the results report that “PAL improved ToT [time on task] behaviour, indicating that PAL could have a role in regulating behaviour and maximising concentration”.

Researchers in this study cite the fact that the acknowledged physical, academic and emotional benefits of PAL have led to national policy changes in countries such as Finland, which have introduced it to get children more active during the school day. In the UK, a pilot PAL programme in Leicestershire from the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine “investigated whether getting pupils to move around more in class could encourage them to sit less and improve their learning experience.”

The pilot found that introducing “active breaks and teaching through movement” has been a positive development, with one Year 2 teacher quoted as saying: “It has been especially effective for those who find the more formal methods of schooling difficult. Active learning is now something that is embedded in my daily teaching.”

Extracurricular physical activities in a post-pandemic environment

As the world opens up and young people make the switch back from online to face-to-face learning, it’s clear from the research that sport has much to offer in helping them not only combat the mental health impact of COVID-19, but also in facilitating them catching up with what they have missed over the past two years – both in and out of the classroom.