Children and young people’s activity levels continue to be negatively impacted by the ongoing coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic at a time when getting active is more important than ever for their mental and physical wellbeing.
Today’s publication of our Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report, which covers the 2020-21 academic year, shows that while there's been no overall decrease in activity levels compared to the previous academic year, existing inequalities have widened while enjoyment and confidence in taking part are down, and there are new short-term issues that need to be considered so they don't become long-term trends.
Positively, the results provide further evidence that active children have higher levels of mental wellbeing and illustrate the role sport and physical activity can play in supporting them amid rising levels of loneliness and declining mental health during the pandemic.
We also know that active children do better at school in attainment and achievement – so there's a dual benefit to taking part amid ongoing uncertainty.
In general, there were lower activity levels when there were more coronavirus restrictions in place – which illustrates the importance of protecting and supporting sport and physical activity opportunities in schools, the active commute to school and the other organised sport in children and young people's lives.
Worryingly, the new findings reveal that existing inequalities have been exacerbated and there’s also been a drop in activity levels for boys that brings them in-line with girls’ activity levels, with girls having traditionally been less likely to take part.
It’s a new problem that’s arisen since coronavirus emerged and there's a risk of it becoming a longer-term trend if it's not addressed.
During the academic year 2020-21, there were 94,000 fewer active children and young people compared to the year before the pandemic (2018-19).
However, due to the enormous effort of teachers, parents, guardians, carers and sport and activity providers – plus the children and young people themselves – activity levels overall remain unchanged from the previous academic year (2019-20), which also featured coronavirus restrictions.
Those from the least affluent families remain the least active, and this gap has widened since the start of the pandemic – in part because low affluence families have less access to outdoor space.
This was particularly significant for Black boys, whose activity levels fell at a starker rate than boys overall.
There's also a broader ethnicity gap with only 36% of Black children getting active compared to 45% of all children and young people.
It’s vital we, and others, tackle these inequalities by supporting the people and communities that need the most help to take part in sport and physical activity during coronavirus recovery efforts.
Lack of enjoyment
Another concerning piece of evidence from the report is that children and young people reported fewer positive attitudes towards sport and physical activity over the 2020-21 academic year, with enjoyment and confidence in taking part seeing significant drops – two of the five components defining physical literacy (competence, understanding and knowledge being the others).
This is important since children and young people with higher levels of physical literacy are much more likely to be active compared to those with lower levels.
If positive attitudes and physical literacy levels don't increase, there's a likelihood the next generation will be less active, leading to poorer health and wellbeing outcomes.
Therefore, there needs to be a collective and immediate effort to increase physical literacy levels, with providers focussed on giving all children and young people positive experiences based on fun and building confidence.
Overall, children and young people are doing fewer activities than they were before the pandemic. Fitness and gym participation is an example of activities that did see gains over the academic year but team sports fell before a partial recovery in the latter part of the year.
Swimming is the activity that's seen the biggest drop overall – though again there was a partial recovery in the summer term – and there are worrying drops in swimming ability among primary school children.
Furthermore, nearly 70% of all children and young people from the least affluent families are unable to swim 25m unaided, a vital life skill.