Research from the University of South Australia has linked higher participation in sport among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children with better academic performance.

Conducted in partnership with the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, the study found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who played organised sports every year for four years had numeracy skills that were advanced by seven months, compared to children who played less sport.  

A world first, the study used data from four consecutive waves of students, following just over 300 students as young as five-years-old to assess their sports participation against academic performance in outcomes from the standardised NAPLAN and PAT tests.

Lead researcher Dr Dot Dumuid from the University of South Australia said while there are limitations to the research, there are theories that could explain the improvement in the academic results. 

“While children are playing sport, they’re getting exercise and activating parts of the brain that are involved in learning. There may be some direct physical explanation,” Dr Dumuid told NIT.

“The children could inadvertently be thinking about maths while they’re playing; having to think about how many points you need to win, how much time is left on the clock. We’ve considered if that’s helping.

“There could also be underlying social reasonings, perhaps being part of a club may help with identity, seeing positive role models, having a supportive environment may help with self-esteem and then using those tools at school, and feeling confident learning.”  

Participation in sport has been linked to better cognitive function and memory in many youth populations, however, this is the first study to confirm the beneficial association among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. 

Co-researcher and Professor of Indigenous Health Education at UTS John Evans said that encouraging sports in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities could have many other benefits for health and wellbeing.  

“Playing sport creates a sense of belonging, and builds self-esteem, coherence and purpose.”

“This is especially important for people living in rural and remote areas where opportunities for social interaction and structured activities can be limited,” Professor Evans said.

“If we can find ways to encourage greater participation among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities while removing key barriers — such as financial costs and lack of transport — we could promote healthier living, more cohesive societies while also boosting academic performance among Indigenous children.” 

Dr Dumuid said the study highlights the importance of sports as a strategy to help close the gap between Indigenous students and their non-Indigenous counterparts.

“Playing sport has always had strong cultural importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, so understanding how sports can boost numeracy among Indigenous children is a valuable step towards improving health and real disadvantage.”  

By Darby Ingram