20 June 2024

Abertay University study highlights impact of Covid-19 on children and young people’s sport participation

Academics publish policy recommendations to increase children and young people's sport participation rates

Abertay University academics have co-authored a new report that outlines key recommendations to boost children and young people’s participation in sport, amid concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic may have created a ‘lost generation’ of inactive youngsters.

The project, led by researchers from the University’s Division of Sport and Exercise Sciences and published by the Data for Children Collaborative (DCC), reveals that children and young people’s sports participation has struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels, with indoor sports memberships plummeting by 40%, and overall participation dropping by 4%.

The data shows that 5–7-year-olds were hit hardest, with a statistically significant decline – highlighting the crucial role early years education can play in shaping lifelong habits.

The research team conducted a comprehensive study on children's access to sport in Scotland which involved primary school children drawing and talking to the researcher about their experiences of sport. Young people, parents and guardians also shared their experiences of sports engagement by completing an online survey, with national, regional and local sports organisations participated in interviews with the team. 

Dr Paula Murray, lecturer in Sports Development and Coaching, and one of the report’s co-authors, said:

It's no surprise that the pandemic has left a lasting scar on children and young people's participation in sport, but the statistics and stories are concerning. Our goal wasn't simply to highlight the issue – we sought to provide a comprehensive, evidence-based roadmap for a children's sports strategy in Scotland to ensure equal access and support for every child's right to engage in sport. As we know, sport offers numerous benefits for physical and mental wellbeing, and is crucial for our children and young people’s overall health and success. If we want them to thrive, we must prioritise sport as a vital component of their development.

The findings revealed that some children and young people have discontinued their participation in organised sports since the pandemic and that sporting competitions experienced a significant decline during the pandemic and are yet to fully recover. Many organisations have struggled to restore their pre-COVID-19 operating hours and access levels due to shortages of volunteers, staff, increased running costs, and a lack of funding.

However, the research also uncovered some unexpected benefits. Despite the challenges, many families reported engaging in new activities together, such as online challenges or daily walks. Additionally, some organisations discovered opportunities for building new relationships with other groups, which may have long-term benefits.

Dr Murray added:

We hope that this report will serve as a valuable resource for policymakers, providing them with the insights and recommendations they need to improve access to sport for young people in Scotland. By informing and guiding policy decisions, we aim to help create a more equitable and inclusive environment where every child can participate in sport, regardless of their background or circumstances.

The report presents a comprehensive set of recommendations, structured around four key themes: improving data on children and sport, ensuring that sport opportunities align with children's needs, restoring access to sport post-pandemic, and establishing long-term foundations for children's sport development.

The report's findings are grounded in the insights gathered during a two-year transdisciplinary collaborative project led by the DCC using their Impact Collaborations methodology. This initiative was prompted by the challenge posed by the Observatory for Sport in Scotland (OSS).

The partnership behind the project brought together a diverse team of five delivery partners, including Abertay, Optima Connect, Urban Foresight and Mulier Institute.

Alex Hutchison, Director, Data for Children Collaborative, said:

We have been delighted to build the collaborative team that has taken this challenge all the way from concept to recommendations in a thoughtful, multi-pronged way. It is so important to bring data to life with stories - and this project has done just that with a very tangible set of outputs, brought together by a range of contributors working together with a common purpose.

Find out more about Abertay’s Division of Sport and Exercise Science

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