SINGAPORE - Most parents think co-curricular activities (CCAs), especially sports, are a waste of time and an unnecessary distraction for their children.
But parents should pay heed to research showing that children involved in sports tend to do better in their studies.
It is well documented that regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence assists in socialisation, school engagement, psycho-social development and academic motivation.
It also reduces problem behaviour.
Many studies link sports activity with higher academic achievement. It has been noted that young athletes' school performance markedly improves during the sporting season, and falls away during off season.
The latest cognitive neuroscience research demonstrates that physical activity actually contributes to important brain development in young children.
For example, a 2005 study on overweight children at the Medical College of Georgia in the United States found that 40 minutes a day of aerobic exercise improved "executive function" - the aspect of intelligence that helps us pay attention, plan and resist distractions.
Yet another experiment showed that the brains of physically fit children showed evidence of more extensive processing during each task.
Compared with sedentary kids, fit children had faster reaction times.
In a 2002 study by the California Department of Education, reading and mathematics scores were matched with fitness scores of over 900,000 students, aged 11, 13 and 15.
It found that higher achievement was associated with increased levels of fitness for every age group studied.
The relationship between academic achievement and fitness was greater in mathematics than in reading, particularly in the fittest individuals.
Students who met minimum fitness levels in three or more physical areas showed the greatest gains in academic achievement at all three ages.
Other research has found that CCAs enhance educational outcomes up to a point, especially if sustained over time.
It is not the CCA participation per se that enhances educational outcomes. It is the fact that the activity provides skills, strengths, networks and support, plus social and personal rewards.
This has the effect of increasing a student's identification with the school and aligns him with its values. Some activities also develop academic skills, or the skills related to motivation or engagement.
For example, getting involved in the school newsletter helps develop planning, time-management, thinking and decision-making skills and also reading and writing proficiency. The robotics club teaches teamwork and maths skills.
Challenging CCAs such as maths clubs can encourage a child to stretch and improve himself. When challenges are met, the child's confidence surges.
What parents can do
Parents should first consider the child's interests and enrol him in activities that they are sure he will enjoy. If your child is interested in a particular sport, check if it is available at his school or at community centres or sports organisations.
Keep in mind, however, that enrolling your child in an organised sport or CCA involves a commitment on your part.
Your child will need appropriate equipment, transportation and support.
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