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August 12, 2015

Let the children play

The world we live in seems to conspire against fun. Ever-tightening school budgets force out non-academic subjects such as music, art, and athletics. At the same time, ambitious parents discourage any distractions that might damage their children’s grades. If, however, participation in non-academic activities improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills, such policies and attitudes are very short-sighted.

Advocates of extracurricular subjects argue that these activities are complements to—not diversions from—the more formal academic disciplines. The abstract reasoning involved in sports can improve one’s mathematical and critical thinking abilities. Researchers refer to these as cognitive skills and measure them by objective standards like scores on standardized tests. The self-discipline and teamwork involved in sports can also improve a participant’s behavior. Researchers call these non-cognitive skills and measure them by more subjective scales such as peer relations or self-image. Both sets of skills contribute to both academic and labor-market success.

Unfortunately, establishing or disproving a link between extracurricular activities and later-life success faces a major obstacle. The problem is that the direction of causation between participation in sports and later success is not clear. Sports might improve participants’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Alternatively, students who already possess such skills may be more likely to participate in sports. Without knowing the direction of causality, econometric studies can generate misleading results.

Economists have a variety of ways to deal with problems of causality. One method is to seek out “natural experiments.” A natural experiment occurs when an event or a law assigns people to different treatments without regard to their prior abilities or preferences. One natural experiment occurred with the implementation of Title IX in the US in the early 1970s. An implication of Title IX was that schools had to provide equal athletic opportunities and funding to girls and boys. This dramatically increased the participation in interscholastic sport by girls, though the impact differed by state because of systematic variations in the size of schools and the target number of opportunities. In her study of the impact of Title IX, Betsy Stevenson found that girls in states that provided more girls’ athletic opportunities went on to receive more schooling later in life.

Other studies have looked at student behavior over time to see how variations in behavior affect later performance. A study by Stephen Lipscomb, for example, asked what happens when students switch from not participating in sports to participating. He found a small but significant positive impact, as participation in sport leads to a two percentage-point increase in standardized test scores.

Perhaps the most important finding about the impact of sports comes from Andrea Felfe, Michael Lechner, and Andreas Steinmayr. Unlike previous researchers who typically examined the behavior of high school or college-aged youths, these authors focused on how participation in sport by German children between the ages of three and ten affect later performance. They find that participation in sport leads to better grades as well as a significant decline in both emotional and behavioral problems later in life.

The findings of this study are particularly valuable for public policy because they show that the impact of participating in sport is set very early in life. Sport therefore resembles other early-intervention programs, such as Head Start in the US, in that the impressions it makes early in life can have an effect that lasts for decades. The study also tells us that the most valuable lessons from sport might not occur on the pitch or in the arena but in the informal play of young childhood. Thus, schools and parents alike might be doing their children a favor by lessening their narrow focus on academics and just letting their children play.

© Michael A. Leeds

Further reading:
Read Michael A. Leeds' article Youth sports and the accumulation of human capital.
For more articles on Education and Human Capital, visit the subject page.

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We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.