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How sport can help with students’ wellbeing as they return to school?

We know the value of sport and physical activity is wide-ranging and, in times where lockdowns and alert level restrictions have thrown up challenges, it’s important for school principals, teachers and coordinators to remember these benefits and look forward to school sport getting underway again.  

The Value of Sport 

Sport NZ’s Value of Sport research highlighted a number of benefits to individuals and communities: 

  • 92% of the people believe being active keeps them physically fit and healthy, and helps relieve stress 
  • 88% believe that sport and other physical activities provide them with opportunities to achieve and help build confidence 
  • 84% believe sport and physical activity bring people together and create a sense of belonging 
  • 74% say sport and physical activity help build vibrant and stimulating communities 

The effect of lockdown on physical activity in young people 

We know from research that there is a drop off in physical activity levels during high school years.  This has been further impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns.  Research conducted by Sport NZ in April 2020 showed that the pre-lockdown hours of activity for young people sat at just under 12 hours per week. This almost halved during the first COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 to 6.6hrs hours and was slow to pick back up once restrictions eased. We also saw a challenge in young people returning to the school environment after a long period away from the classroom – many of these young people were supporting parents and whānau with their businesses or busy as caregivers for siblings. 

A strong connection between sport and physical activity, school and wellbeing 

We know from research, and what young people have told us that sport and school are very closely connected.  

  • Sport gives students a sense of belonging and connection when they’re interacting with their mates 
  • Sport and physical activity is a great way to help manage anxiety and stress for young people 
  • Students who are physically active tend to realise their potential in the classroom with better academic results (Resource

It’s an important connection that a number of education leaders across Aotearoa support.  

“We’re very aware of the international research on the benefits of young men staying in school, i.e. improved life chances, wellbeing and overall success.  For us and our rangatahi, sport plays an integral part in our retention strategy.  It works and makes a positive difference as well as the more obvious benefits of fitness, social interaction and values development”. 

Richard Dykes, Headmaster at Nelson College 

“Sport plays an important role in ensuring that our young women at school have balance in their lives, as well as teaching them the habit of discipline, teamwork and resilience. We believe that it is important that where possible, our students re-engage in sport and recreation, to reunite them with team mates, an opportunity to blow off some steam and have some closure on their season.” 

Marie Gordon, Principal at Hamilton Girls High School 

“The beauty of sport and the school environment is that it provides a pathway for success. A student may not always be successful in the classroom, but sport is where they thrive. For some students it allows multiple pathways for success as they can do well both in the classroom and in sport. We see that sport provides a platform to improve self-esteem and sportsmanship; it allows students to establish friendships with other students within the school and across school, and can also be at multiple year levels; and it is an opportunity to meet and get to know teachers beyond the classroom. These all help the wellbeing of young people and provide a strong connection with their peers. In the uncertain times that we are currently experiencing, that connection is even more crucial.” 

Tim Grocott, Headmaster at Shirley Boys High School

Creating quality experiences for young people when it comes to sport and school 

Now more than ever, it’s important for us to listen to the needs of young people and understand how we can offer sport and activity experiences at school in a way that supports these needs. If we do this, young people are more likely to return to school and get the benefits we know come from being physically and socially active.  

Let’s not forget that rangatahi (12-18 year olds) are returning to school at a time when their academic aspirations are paramount – senior students, in particular, have a heavy learning workload with the internal and assessment requirements of NCEA. Young people shouldn’t have to choose between playing sport or completing their studies; an opportunity exists for those involved in sport to consider their approach to restarting their codes in a way that supports students to be active while also having the time they need to focus on their learning.  

For example, we’re seeing some schools making decisions to cancel winter sport tournaments rather than rescheduling which helps to give young people time to focus on their studies whilst still having access to sport and physical activity outside of regular competition or tournaments. 

Taking a student-first approach will help young people reconnect through sport and physical activity and thrive in the school environment.   

So how can you help make this happen in the school setting?  

There’s a range of ways to use sport and physical activity in the school setting to support students and help with any academic pressures they may be facing:  

  • Discuss the sport aspirations with students – they will feel pressured to support the inter-school competitive calendar but may be reluctant to re-engage in this 
  • Establish intra-school sport opportunities and competitions – these are easily accessible and time/cost effective 
  • Put aside time in the day for fun sport activities in your classes, including fitness opportunities.  Games are easy to organise and relieve stress 
  • Keep the lockdown challenges going – there are many great examples on Regional Sports Trust and sports organisation websites 
  • Get together with students to plan a school-wide event focused on having fun and making connections through sport and activity 
  • Consider how you can deliver school sport to help young people return to school and keep them there – this might mean scheduling quality sport and recreation opportunities on Mondays and Fridays for example 
  • Work with school senior management to understand the important role that physical activity, including sport, plays in the wellbeing of students 
  • We Think about instituting whānau -based activity opportunities at your school – parents and whānau might be reluctant to allow their young people to be involved in sport and showing them how the school setting is a safe space might alleviate their concerns 
  • Make sure you have multiple opportunities and channels for students to register/trial for summer sport codes.  They might not be available for a single sign-on opportunity and shouldn’t miss out because they have other things on in their lives 

If you need more ideas about how to re-engage students into the school setting in a way that meets their needs, accommodates the disruption in their lives caused by Covid, and provides an easy reintroduction to sport and physical activity you can contact your Regional Sports Director, School Sport NZ or Sport NZ. 

Image Source: Sport NZ

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