Research: Physical activity can help disadvantaged pupils

New research published this week suggests that children who do more physical activity may be able to control their emotions more easily, and therefore have improved educational attainment.

This pattern of association, reported in a study from Cambridge University, was found to be particularly pronounced among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The authors of the study suggest that this may in part be because less-advantaged children often have fewer opportunities to participate in organised recreation and sports, and therefore experience stronger benefits when they do so.


Co-author of the study, Dr Michelle Ellefson, said: “In the context of Covid in particular, there may be a real temptation to encourage schools to maximise classroom time to stop children falling behind. This study is saying ‘think again’, because playtime and PE lessons benefit the mind in ways that children really need in order to do their best.”

The study analysed data from more than 4,000 children in England, and reported that physical activities which promote self-control, such as swimming or ball sports, also have positive, knock-on effects for academic attainment.

It the first ever long-term analysis of the connections between physical activity, self-regulation and academic achievement. Researchers used data captured at three stages during childhood and adolescence: ages seven, 11 and 14.


Fotini Vasilopoulos, who led the study, said: “Research examining the links between physical activity and attainment has produced mixed findings, but there is a positive, indirect relationship because of the impact on mental processes like self-control. This may be particularly important for children from families who find it harder to access sports clubs or other forms of physical activity outside school.”

The authors also suggest that schools could build links with sports clubs to create targeted programmes for children experiencing early disadvantage.

“Even giving children less-structured opportunities to run around outside could be of real developmental importance,” Ellefson added. “We really need to ensure that physical activity does not become an area schools feel they can legitimately sacrifice to drive up academic attainment. It has a crucial part to play.”

Read more on the website of Cambridge University.

Reference: Fotini Vasilopoulos, Michelle R. Ellefson. 'Investigation of the associations between physical activity, self-regulation and educational outcomes in childhood.' PLoS ONE (2021). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0250984