How can after-school clubs improve children’s mental health?

The crucial role of extracurricular activities in improving mental wellbeing following school closures
Photo by Alyssa Ledesma on Unsplash
Photo by Alyssa Ledesma on Unsplash

Over the last few months, more and more evidence has emerged to confirm what many have feared: the impact of COVID-19 on children’s lives is affecting their mental health. Researchers and educators have been sounding the alarm about the potential long-term effects of school closures on children’s and adolescents’ mental wellbeing.

Following the release of a report on schools in England last week, which found children’s learning has suffered and more children are showing increased signs of mental distress, could allowing after-school clubs to reopen help mitigate some of these effects?

In England, a four-week national lockdown has been imposed in an effort to contain the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, schools are remaining open, but extensive restrictions are in place, including a ban on after-school sports clubs. After the extraordinarily stressful experience of the initial lockdown for children and adolescents, however, it is surely more urgent than ever to actively encourage activities that could boost children’s mental health.

“It is surely more urgent than ever to actively encourage activities that could boost children’s mental health.”

What do we know about the positive impacts of sports clubs?

It is well known that physical activity and exercise can help protect against depression and anxiety. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not only participation in physical activity, but also the social aspect of such activities, that helps reduce depressive symptoms. A recent study, involving more than 11,000 children aged 9-10 years, found that social connections partially mediated the effects of physical activity, which suggests that the social dynamics of physical activities may protect against depression in childhood. The social component of physical activity also has benefits that extend beyond a child’s current mental health. Participation during adolescence has been found to predict lower perceived stress and higher self-rated mental health in young adulthood.

“It’s not only participation in physical activity, but also the social aspect of such activities, that helps reduce depressive symptoms.”

What’s more, it’s never too late to start. A recent three-year study found that young adolescents who began to participate in extracurricular activities during the course of the study demonstrated better mental health over time, an effect that was mediated by a greater sense of belonging to the peer group. Although this particular study controlled for children’s socioeconomic background, a factor which can influence participation in extracurricular activities, it’s important to keep in mind other studies that have contributed to this body of research fail to account for such factors. Still, the available evidence suggests that physical activity is an important factor in maintaining positive mental health in childhood and adolescence, and that the opportunity to play and learn with peers drives this effect.

“We must not ignore signs that children’s mental wellbeing may be at risk.”

While much of the focus during the COVID-19 pandemic has, appropriately, been on keeping children physically safe, we must not ignore signs that children’s mental wellbeing may be at risk. Since the majority of mental health disorders begin in childhood and adolescence, it is essential to identify problems and intervene during this sensitive developmental period. After-school sports clubs provide a relatively safe environment for children to take part in social physical activity – provided, of course, that children interact only with the same children and adults they are exposed to during the school day. If this is the case, the risk of transmission is no greater than when children attend regular school classes. As children’s daily lives and routines continue to be disrupted by the pandemic, we must remember the value of after-school sports clubs and provide as many opportunities as possible for children to learn and grow together.

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