Why are extracurricular activities important?

Most of us can relate to the aspiration of being a well-rounded person, and this goes for young people too. Their lives may seem to revolve primarily around the school subjects of history, maths, languages, and science, but of course activities beyond the classroom and outside of the school curriculum can be life changing for young people, and research backs this up.

We can start with a simple correlation: young people who attend music classes are 40 percent more likely to pursue higher education. This is a massive statistic. Even though music classes don’t cause students to go to university, it more than hints at the importance of extracurricular activities in students’ lives.

In fact, extracurricular activities, including sport, arts, and outdoor activities, have a wide range of beneficial effects on students’ lives, ranging from improving their academic achievement, to making them better citizens, to making them less likely to engage in crime.

Sport and physical activities

Let’s look at sport and physical activities. Participation in sports has direct health benefits, obviously, but also reduces risk of chronic illnesses and mental health problems. It improves young people’s wellbeing by incorporating them into a community and providing opportunities for social interactions, leading to higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.

As mentioned before, playing sports reduces levels of crime, and it also improves behaviour in class. Some studies have linked participation in sports to higher levels of academic achievement due to increased blood flow to the brain and higher levels of endorphins, leading to better moods and calmer pupils.

The Arts

Arts, a category encompassing a vast range of activities like music, painting, crafts, and drama, generally appear to have a positive relationship with increased social capital and relationships among young people. Studies have linked arts participation to improvement in the following aspects of students’ lives:

  • Verbal and visual memory (Greenberg, 2010; Heyning, 2010)
  • Vocabulary (Heyning, 2010)
  • Listening and learning skills (Greenberg, 2010; Imms et al., 2011)
  • Problem solving and thinking skills (Jeanneret, 2010; Portowitz et al., 2009)
  • Commitment to education (Stahl & Dale, 2013)
  • Working better as a team and perseverance (Bryce, 2004; Hallam et al., 2011; Imms et al., 2011)
  • Improved attitudes towards learning and school (Burnard, 2008; Gacherieu, 2004)
  • Concentration and ability to organise (Hallam et al., 2011)
  • Pupil engagement, empowerment and sense of belonging (Stevenson, 2014)
  • Likelihood to engage in wider public community activities (Rosevear, 2007)

Nature

Apart from the multitude of benefits gleaned from engagement in sport and the arts, much research has gone into the positives of time spent outdoors and in nature, which include physical and mental health benefits, along with promoting children’s healthy development and wellbeing.

What prevents participation?

So with all of these wonderful benefits associated with extracurricular activities, why aren’t more students participating? Reports found that 37 percent of young people do not participate in extracurricular activities, and that rises to 54 percent when you consider children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The biggest barrier to entry is household income. Students from poorer families simply cannot afford to participate. Their time may be spent with responsibilities at home, or their parents can’t afford music lessons, for example. Regardless of the specifics, their inability to take part in extracurriculars becomes a vicious circle, preventing them from experiencing all the aforementioned benefits.

What can we do?

It is of the utmost importance that this disparity in opportunity be addressed, and that can be done by promoting and sponsoring activities for disadvantaged kids, which is what HEP’s new charity arm Horizons aims to do in the near future. But even at a more basic level, encouraging all young people to participate in extracurricular activities gives them advantages and opportunities that they won’t get from attending school alone. Extracurriculars almost all create new experiences, develop positive relationships and encourage team working, and channel the sustained focus and concentration to develop and succeed.

Any student from any background can find an interest in a sport or physical activity, in music or acting or art, or in nature or cultural heritage, and if parents, teachers, or even their peers motivate young people to try extracurriculars out in a search for their passions, that huge range of benefits can be unlocked.

About the Author:

Luke Kemper

Luke Kemper is Insight and Intelligence Lead at HEP. He recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development. Before that, he worked for seven years as a university lecturer and high school teacher in China and Poland.

HEP Talks Podcast

The voice of Haringey Education Partnership. A weekly briefing on the latest stories in education news, deep diving into developments and interviews with leading voices in Education.

More Insights