Giving our kids a sporting chance

Posted on 22 Mar 2022

The pandemic has affected the lives of our children in many ways. But sport could hold the key to restoring their health, happiness, and confidence.

“One of the things I missed most when we couldn’t go to school was athletics,” says Kate Kleinsmidt, age 11. “I went running in the park, but it wasn’t the same. I’m so glad my school has started athletics again.”

In February 2022, the South African government lifted rotational attendance, shortened quarantine periods, and removed social distancing requirements at schools across the country. It was a strong signal that – while we all need to be careful and stay safe – a semblance of normality is being restored to the everyday lives of our children.

One of the most important aspects of childhood development is interpersonal contact, play, and physical activity. There’s a good reason why physical education (PE) is a part of the school curriculum, and why many schools make at least one summer and winter sport compulsory. The physical, emotional, and psychological advantages of playing sport are clear and have been extensively documented – from lower obesity and better sleep, to increased self-esteem and simply making new friends.

“Sport is an integral part of a child’s physical development,” says Dr Omar Farouk Jooma, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg, “but it’s also important for their mental development. It teaches them about camaraderie and social interaction and winning and losing.

“COVID-19 has certainly contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle, and combined with poor dietary habits – carbohydrates and processed foods – this can lead to unhealthy body mass index (BMI) and obesity. And that in itself predisposes them to developing type 2 diabetes where they get insulin resistance. Sport certainly helps to keep the body lean.”

The pandemic has played havoc with this element of our children’s lives. A study by the Aspen Institute showed that 44% of American children lost interest in sport because of the pandemic. And the suspension of sports at South African schools due to COVID-19 meant youngsters simply didn’t have access to these regularly organised activities.

According to a study published in JAMA Paediatrics, since COVID-19, rates of anxiety and depression in children worldwide increased by 20.5% and 25.2% respectively. And during lockdown in 2021 the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reported an increase in calls relating to mental health in children and adolescents.

While the correlation between decreased sporting activity and an increase in mental health issues is variable, the evidence clearly indicates that sporting activities provide a viable solution to the mental ravages of the pandemic. So as restrictions are eased, it’s important to prioritise and encourage sport in the lives of our youth.

“If a parent is worried about a child contracting COVID-19 by playing sport, I’d encourage them to have their children vaccinated,” Dr Jooma says. “That gives you the comfort of knowing they’ll be protected, and reduces the chances of them developing complications.”

Some parents may be reluctant to allow or encourage their kids to begin or return to sport. Whether those fears stem from COVID-19, potential injuries, or mere scheduling complications, the message from experts and doctors is clear: the benefits of participating in sports far outweigh the risks.

At the end of the day, the adage remains true: it’s not important whether you win or lose. But even more important than how you play the game, is that you play the game in the first place.


Published in News