British Columbia

UBC study says team-based extracurriculars boost children's mental health

A new study from the University of British Columbia showed kids who took up team-based extracurricular activities showed improvements in mental health indicators.

Kids who played in teams showed a stronger sense of optimism and more satisfaction with life, study says

Study lead author Eva Oberle says team sports create 'a stronger sense of peer belonging.' (Shutterstock / A_Lesik)

A new study from the University of British Columbia found that kids who took up team-based extracurricular activities showed more positive mental health indicators — like a stronger sense of optimism and more satisfaction with life. 

Lead author Eva Oberle, assistant professor in the School of Population and Public Health, said her research team surveyed over 10,000 students in Grade 4, and again when they reached Grade 7. 

The youth were questioned about their well-being, their mental health, their relationships and also about what kind of structured, organized, after-school activities they did.

There were different groups of children: those that didn't participate in any extracurricular activities, those that participated in everything, those that mainly did sports and those that did individual activities like music lessons or tutoring. 

"What we found was, over time, the kids who did nothing in Grade 4 but by Grade 7 they had shifted to activities [had] benefits for mental health, specifically those kids who had shifted to activities that involve team sports," Oberle told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On The Coast

Oberle said these youth showed higher levels of positive mental health indicators — like a stronger sense of optimism and more satisfaction with life — and lower levels of negative mental health indicators — like depressive symptoms and anxiety. 

She said this is because team sports create "a stronger sense of peer belonging."

"You are all in this together," Oberle said. "There's some nurturing each other, supporting each other, and you celebrate together when you win. So there's a lot of togetherness and connectedness that is fostered through team sport."

Advice for parents

Oberle said her research can be helpful for parents making decisions about back-to-school activities for their kids. For instance, she says, parents should think beyond an activity translating into developing a specific, productive skill in a child.

Rather, she says, consider how the overall experience can benefit a child. 

"[Consider] how this [activity] can be a really important social context and environment where my child can belong to a peer group, engage in positive relationships and find a place of connectedness," she said. 

She says her research also has implications for the broader community and how we ensure children have access to extracurricular activities in their community and that there is a place where they can also connect with their friends.

"Is this is an affordable activity? Can all children afford it? Or is it really just an activity for four families who are economically privileged?"

The study was published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Listen to the segment from CBC's On The Coast here

A new study from the University of British Columbia showed kids who took up team-based extracurricular activities showed improvements in mental health indicators. 7:44

With files from On The Coast

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