Youth work and sport: research results


Amanda Vernalls, Research and Knowledge Manager, Youth Sport Trust

Wednesday, June 1, 2022


Analysis from the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2022 found that when children came out of lockdown what they most wanted to do was play. Play and sport help children build friendships, empathize and understand each other.

They develop their social skills and find a place in the world. The context of sport can offer both freedom and responsibility through a less structured, safer and informal space where they can learn life lessons. Physical activity has a direct impact on mood, concentration and aids in learning. All of this carries over into the classroom and beyond into adulthood. Our charity knows the power of play and sport to change lives, but still many people are unaware of these positive benefits.

Here we present an overview of the latest research. We cannot create change alone; we need as many people as possible to become agents of change to help us reclaim play and sport in the lives of children.

The benefits of participating in play and sport

Young people are not getting enough physical activity and at the same time schools in England have seen significant reductions in the amount of PE in the school calendar. Furthermore, inequality has led to an achievement gap, and the current slow progress in closing this gap means that it will persist for decades.

We know that physical activity contributes to physical health, mental and social well-being, and the development of life skills, but it has broader benefits. Our evidence and industry research demonstrates the positive association we see between physical activity, learning and achievement in children and youth, underscoring the importance of maintaining focus and investment in this domain. Schools have a unique role to play in influencing children’s motivation to participate in activities and providing them with opportunities. Evidence shows that physical activity can improve cognition, emotional regulation, help children focus and is associated with higher levels of academic achievement (see graphs).

When students at Holy Family Catholic School in Birmingham returned to school on March 8, 2021, after a year of intermittent closures, NQT, newly appointed Grade 3 class teacher and physical education co-ordinator Drew Hill , reported that students were “disengaged and preoccupied”. Elements of their learning, including handwriting and concentration, had suffered. In the first four weeks back to school, much of the usual curriculum has been put on hold in favor of a simplified approach including English, maths, RE and physical education. Students reported feeling “nervous” and “shy” upon their return, as well as excited to see and spend time with their friends. Levels of physical activity during lockdown were low among students, with many reporting having done no physical activity at home. Teachers also noted that students seemed unfit and easily fatigued when participating in activities.

To address this issue, Holy Family tore up the calendar and prioritized sporting events and opportunities to engage in outdoor teaching and learning. Playground activities were encouraged, physical education was built into every school day to ensure students were as active as possible, and Key Stage 1 students used active videos each morning.

Students in Key Stage 2 had 15-minute ‘after the break’ activity sessions each day during which they played fast-paced team games to get their heart rates up. A schedule was also arranged to allow one class to both hit the playground and run a mile throughout the day.

As a result, the students gained confidence. They rebuilt friendships and were “excited” to be outside and play with friends. Fitness levels and endurance have improved, as well as focus and willingness to learn.

Inequalities and access to sport after school

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to access and understand the benefits of sport and play, according to research from Sport England. Young people from lower socio-economic groups in the UK are also the least confident in engaging in physical activity.

In 2020 Mike Diaper, then Executive Director of Children and Young People at Sport England, reportedly said: ‘It is clear now that wealth is the most important factor in conduct issues along with mental or physical well-being and the activity levels. The richer you are, the more choices you have, for example access to clubs. The more affluent also have access to private spaces for exercising, such as gardens. The less well-off depend more on schools and public places.

With the risk of rising levels of inequality in the UK in the post-pandemic era, it is vital that the current gap in engagement with sport is closed in the short term (see charts). Sport participation has the potential to drive social mobility and increase levels of opportunity across all social groups. However, unlocking this potential will require determining to what extent income levels shape engagement in sport.

Research from our Sport England-funded Healthy Lifestyle Champion program has shown that some young people don’t do any activity because their parents aren’t ‘athletic’. Healthy Lifestyle Champions aims to increase the engagement of young people in lower socio-economic groups by ensuring that the right offer of activities is available in schools.

Increased peer leadership, volunteerism and advocacy are key outcomes of the program and are key to accessing and engaging youth from lower socio-economic groups. The development of leadership skills and qualities is supported through youth training, as well as follow-up activities including peer consultation, festival planning and facilitation, and directing or helping of activities. Thanks to this approach, the volunteer hours accumulated by young people on the program almost doubled, going from 1,171 to 1,905 hours. Almost two-thirds of young people from lower socio-economic groups now say they have a say in their school sport offer (compared to less than a fifth before the intervention), and almost three-quarters say they lead or help “a lot” in activities now.

The program appears to have given young people “something to focus on in difficult times” (teacher interview), with gains noted in their confidence, empathy, motivation, work ethic, time management and their involvement in school life in the broad sense. Young people appear to have a new appreciation for the value of activity opportunities since the pandemic, proactively developing and offering new after-school clubs and using their voices more frequently and more confidently to engage less active peers.

The key to success in helping more young people access sport at school is that activities are informed, led and delivered by young people, for young people.

Making sports fun drives engagement

More than six in 10 young people in the UK say having fun is an important aspect of their lives. Ensuring that fun and play remain at the heart of young people’s engagement in sport will be key to establishing an authentic and emotional connection to these activities. Such levels of engagement will help ensure that sport and physical activity become an organic part of young people’s daily routines, increasing the likelihood that they will remain engaged and active throughout their lives. In addition, promoting active school systems will also help foster more natural levels of physical activity. For example, new school formats that encourage greater mobility throughout the day and outdoor learning options.

Having fun in sport has been rated very consistently by young people over the past decade, but this appetite for fun has fallen from 59% of young people considering it important in 2014 to 61% of young people in 2020.

To reduce the risk that young people will be put off by specific sport experiences and create a ripple effect that discourages wider engagement in sport, more attention should be paid to increasing the supply of multi-sport opportunities in school and community environments. Playing the same sport for an extended period of time can be daunting for young people who don’t have a natural sense of enjoyment with the activity in question. Too little sport experience reduces the likelihood that children will find what works for them. By creating school and community environments that can provide young people with opportunities to engage in a variety of activities over the same period, there is an increased likelihood of developing meaningful engagement with sport in a greater proportion young people participating.

Enabling young people to co-create and design such multi-sport programs will also create positively engaging experiences. Understanding the specific needs of the community and young people in the area will be essential in designing bespoke multi-sport programs that can best meet the needs of particular areas, whether through physical education or an outside multi-sport club. of the school environment. .

National school sports week

The UK is facing a ‘new pandemic’ of loneliness, increased mental health needs and childhood inactivity. To inspire more children to have fun playing sport this summer, the Youth Sport Trust’s annual National School Sport Week campaign is back from June 20-26.

The theme is “Belonging – a place in sport for every child”. Teachers, parents and organizations across the UK are urged to help every child find a place to belong and sign up for the campaign www.youthsporttrust.org/national-school-sport-week.

Everyone who signs up will receive free resources, including ideas on how to raise awareness of the benefits of school sports and access to a fun “one a day” physical activity challenge throughout the week.

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