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How does Sports Help Cognitive Development in Children?

Simply put, cognitive development is a journey of a child who develops skills to explore, evaluate, analyse … essentially “figure things out” independently. The development is a process of knowledge acquisition, embracing and mastering a variety of skills, working out cause-and-effect by learning to solve problems and representation of ideas as they emerge because of this process. When anyone speaks about this topic, you simply must mention the famous Swiss psychologist Jian Piaget’s theory of intellectual or cognitive development that involved four stages for children:

  • Sensorimeter
  • Preoperational
  • Concrete operational and
  • Formal operational

It focused on moving from birth to adolescence to adulthood, and in each stage achieving a “goal” from object permanence to symbolic thought, from operational thought to abstract concepts. Sounds intense, doesn’t it?

Simply put, researchers and theorists have emphasized on this essential cog of brain development for an important reason. It is the core of what a child’s learning is based on. In layman’s words, it is about working out what the information means, what needs to be done with it, and how it can apply in different contexts – will it be the same? Will it change?

While traditionalists may think all of this can only be achieved by classroom delivery of different subject areas, the evolution of the industry has seen how creative arts, performing arts and sport play a pivotal role in making this development process more enjoyable, relatable and also more seamless for children. I will focus on sport and explain how sport plays that leading role in developing a child’s cognitive ability in a manner that is effortless!

For starters, it is an active engagement when the child is participating in sports and as educators would remind you almost instantly, works for different types of learners almost as a “one-stop-shop”. It has got movement, it can include music (especially fitness routines), it is visual, it involves listening at all times to verbal and non-verbal instructions, and linguistic ability especially in team sports, interpersonal and intra-personal be it individual or team sports and because sport are played both indoors and outdoors, children tend to discover the naturalistic side to themselves as well. Sport therefore caters to all kinds of learners simply because of the dimensions it offers, which is key as it is often thought of only as a physical engagement meant for those who have the talent. With the right scheme of work planned in schools, every child can embrace this and it adds nicely to the child’s
learning story

This sports “platform” allows the child to participate (there are end number of sports today be it physical or esports that children have access to from chess to swimming, from gymnastics to track and field, from soccer, cricket to basketball, motor racing to fencing to name a few). From this wide ocean, children can pick on their passion and engage (as individual participation in a competition or especially in team sports), think of solutions (different stages in the match, demands a different kind of approach especially when you are put in a difficult position by the opposition) and work out where they need to focus more on, or where they need to build their capacity or capability, and who they need to consult for skill enhancement or strategy is cognitive development in a nutshell.

As any athlete will share, it isn’t simply playing the sport in the match or game, but the
before and after – understanding rules of the games and how these can impact a particular decision, learning the right training techniques to be able to sustain a longer career, it is understanding about injuries and how to manage the body, it is about nutrition and how to manage work load such that your body is always fresh, it is about handling the mental aspect of participation and conducting yourself as a team player, and these days it is also about communication and representation in social media. So when you consider the scope and range of opportunities that sports has as a platform for cognitive development, you will also work out easily that it also includes the very classroom subjects that we began this conversation with – math ability to work out the angle at which a particular fielder should be positioned to cut-off the advantage of the batsman or for example or during a team
meeting – being able to effectively communicate key ideas to a variety of team members not all of whom come from the same background (language arts – simplification and complexity of the narrative), it’s about making that split second decision about who goes up the batting order when the chips are down (logic and critical thinking and in many ways computational thinking as you out permutations and combinations based on that single decision), it is about the tech quotient, and it so much about science and environmental
sciences (different surfaces require different techniques and adjustments) that it almost makes sport seem like a school in itself.

Sport demands the child to constantly be on the move, thinking and evaluating, managing and adjusting, and essentially “figuring things out”. It isn’t only about skill and talent – it is a 360 that comes together making students more confident, analytical, reflective, expressive, social, creative and inclusive. Isn’t that what you hope can be achieved with every academic subject apart from the “technical” knowledge?

I rest my case!


Fatema Agarkar

Founder, Agarkar Centre of Excellence Veteran of 3 educational start-ups – is now a Founder of Agarkar Centre of Excellence, Fatema’s passion for teaching-learning and children defines the different roles she has crafted – as an edupreneur, educator and mentor.

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