The effects of structured activities and sports on children


Structured activities and sports have grown over the past 60 years from backyard baseball and street hockey to Little League and State Championships. The mantle of sports has been carried on from generation to generation and influenced by star athletes and their legacies.

Children in group homes, hospitals and schools have been visited by star athletes like Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning. With such support by star athletes, parents and other adults have been influenced by the view that sports and children produce more positive benefits than otherwise. The following are the arguments for and against structured activities and sports and the impact they have on children's learning processes.

Benefits of sports

Sports can have a positive impact on how children learn and develop lifelong skills. Such skills include self-esteem and the ability to socially interact with other children. These skills travel and grow with them into adulthood. Other benefits that children can glean from playing sports are the importance of exercise, physical fitness, endurance and, most importantly, having fun.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), further developments that children can attain from sports are "physical skills…make friends…learn to play as a member of a team, learn to play fair, and improve self-esteem." With sports becoming an organization all its own, some argue that even without the influence of money-making competition, sports can have an overall positive impact on character building for children of all ages.

Dr. Brunner, a behavioral science expert, further supports the overall benefits for children who learn to play friendly, "competitively-wise" sports. Dr. Brunner stated:

"…far more important than the win/loss record…A character mettle forged much stronger than trophy metal. Something that you as a parent (or competitor) should heed…for your child to compete in the fullest rather than in the most primitive sense in the arena of life."

He goes on to state that the narrow focus on winning in sports will prevent children from learning and accomplishing their full potential during competition. If the focus is solely on "play to win," that strips children of developing an understanding of failure and the child's ability to accept a loss and positively move forward. By stunting them with this narrow-minded idea that "winning is everything," children will not learn the character-building results of accepting, coping with and bouncing back from losing. Dr. Brunner goes on to theorize that teaching children to compete with themselves will allow them to better set and reach their own personal goals/wins; focused instead on self-improvement regardless of wins/losses. Teaching children the mechanisms to challenge oneself gives them the blueprints necessary to learn how to improve their self-confidence in all aspects of their life and into adulthood.

Positive and negative effects of structured activities on children

The positive impacts that structured activities have on children's learning process include problem solving, goal attainment and academic performance. Kids who make the choice to join the debate team, an after-school art program or a sports team, of their own volition, often have piqued interest in staying mentally, creatively and physically active. Those children should be encouraged to set and reach their own goals within each structured activity. Parents should, however, reinforce the importance of leisure time, especially if their child no longer finds the goals they are trying to achieve fun. Children have to be interested in their structured activity in order to stay motivated in achieving their goals. They must also be able to view their creative, academic and sports challenges as fun/inviting activities.

According to a University of Colorado, Boulder, study:

"Children who spend more time in less structured activities–from playing outside to reading books to visiting the zoo–are better able to set their own [personal]goals and take actions to meet those goals without prodding from adults…"

This study showed that children who participated in multiple activities, like dance lessons, homework and cello lessons, "had poorer "self-directed executive function," a measure of the ability to set and reach goals independently." This study is one of the first to bring to light to the effects of formal structured activities on how children learn.

The head of the study, Professor Yuko Munakata, an expert in psychology and neuroscience, stressed the importance of "executive function during childhood," and how the results of burdening children with too many activities can delay their "performance in academics, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later." This remains an ongoing study by U of C-Boulder, in an effort to bring to light the impacts of structured versus unstructured activities on children's learning processes and the long term effects.

Going forward

With ongoing studies and research done into the benefits and negative aspects of sports and structured activities for children, parents and adults need to do their due diligence. They need to understand the health and safety impacts of any sports their children choose to be a part of. They also to need make sure that their children are not taking away the negative aspects that are associated with the competitive nature of sports.

Instead, they should continue to reinforce good sportsmanship, exercise and health, and the child's choice to pursue that avenue. They should also educate children on the monetary value involved in joining sports and other formal activities. Furthermore, children learn to appreciate the time and effort put in by their coaches, teammates and other supporters that were directly involved in their growth as a skilled young athlete, scholar, performer, etc.

Dr. Nick Holt, professor of faculty and physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta, states:

"…the outcomes of sport are contingent on the ways in which sport is delivered by parents and coaches and experienced by children…Positive outcomes, such as life skills, must be directly taught to young athletes. They do not naturally occur just by playing a sport. As youth sport researchers often say, "life skills are taught, not caught."

His ongoing research and evidence further support the idea that life skills learned through sports can spread to other activities. Children will be more able to actively learn in other areas, like school or any other structured activity. However, children must be able to learn these lessons and skills from the adults in their lives, i.e. coaches, parents, teachers.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry further states that adults need to be actively involved in their children's learning process in school, sports and formal activities. If children are under the constant stress of "win at all costs," their attitudes and behavior can begin to reflect the negative aspects of competitive sports and can influence how they react in other learning environments.

To summarize, the life skills that children learn from structured activities and sports can fully benefit them only if taught in a non-hostile environment, without the adults projecting competitive comparisons and expectations on the children. By allowing children the ability to accept failure and learn how to improve their skills without the expectations to be better than anyone else will greatly influence their character. Focusing on self-improvement without dwelling on winning/losing, regardless of the activity, will allow children the platform needed to continually self-improve throughout their lives.


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