Skip to content

Coronavirus challenges highlight importance of physical activity and sport for children

Our latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report evidences the benefits on mental health and loneliness. Existing inequalities have widened, and new issues have arisen with boys losing active habits.

9th December 2021

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.

A girl taking part in a gymnastics class at school

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. 

A slide from the Active Lives report showing 32.4% of children are less active, 23.0% of children are fairly active and 44.6% of children are active

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. 

Click on the link below to read our report – if embedded links in the PDF do not function correctly in Google Chrome, please use another browser, or open the report in a dedicated PDF viewer: 

Chief executive's reaction

The results of this survey are worrying for all of us – but we should also recognise that were it not for the commitment and efforts of so many people across the sport, physical activity and education sectors, as well as the parents, carers and children themselves, the impact of the pandemic on activity levels would have been even worse.

What the survey highlights most of all is how much there is now to do to achieve our aim of building a nation where every child has access to the benefits of playing sport and living an active life.

The report adds further evidence that, while the pandemic impacted us all in some way, not everyone was impacted equally. The activity levels for Black children – in particular Black boys - and those from the least affluent families are a real concern. We also have short-term issues emerging that need addressing so they don’t become long-term problems, such as the drop in boys’ activity levels and the drops in enjoyment, confidence and physical literacy as a whole.

Sport and physical activity can play a positive role in children’s mental wellbeing and their education. As we continue through Covid-19 we have got to do all we can to help level up access to it by supporting those that need the most help.

At Sport England, we'll continue with our Uniting the Movement strategy, which has tackling inequalities at its heart. It emphasises the need to create positive experiences for children and young people based around fun and enjoyment to help create a lifelong relationship with activity.
The upcoming update to the School Sport and Activity Action Plan is an opportunity to take forward the lessons from today’s results we shouldn’t let pass us by.

It’s up to all of us to work together to ensure we provide the best possible opportunities to children and young people, both in the weeks and months ahead and when we emerge from the pandemic.

Tim Hollingsworth

Chief executive, Sport England

The relationship between coronavirus restrictions and activity levels

There's a clear relationship between activity levels and the restrictions imposed at the time, with children more likely to be active if they’re physically attending school.  

The timeline of the coronavirus pandemic

  • What changed during different phases of the pandemic?

    In autumn 2020, many school sites reopened after being closed in the previous summer term. However, class bubbles and ad hoc closures were common.  

    Additionally, this period also saw restrictions start to be re-imposed. These factors all impacted activity levels, with 212,000 (-3.1%) fewer children and young people meeting the active threshold compared to the equivalent pre-pandemic period 12 months earlier. 

    For much of the spring term school sites were again closed to most pupils as we entered a new national lockdown throughout January and February. While there was only a modest drop of 168,000 (-2.5%) active children and young people compared to the spring term 2020, this was a period disrupted by unusually bad weather. Overall, activity levels are 6.5% (409,000) down on the spring term 2019. 

    During the summer term schools sites were mainly open to all pupils but there was continued disruption, the main difference being that restrictions were easing over the summer term rather than being tightened as they were in the autumn term. Despite this, activity levels haven't recovered to pre-pandemic levels.  

    Types of activities

    Most activities have seen drops in those taking part. Some activities weren’t available across much of the year, either due to the majority of children not being in school, schools not running activities or because community facilities were closed. 

    This is reflected in the drops in swimming (-11.8%) and gymnastics, trampolining and cheerleading (-4.2%), compared to 12 months ago.  

    Around 250,000 (-3.7%) fewer children and young people took part in team sports across the academic year 2020-21, compared to 12 months earlier. 

    Active play (-4.9%) also declined, while walking to get to school or other places (-2.4%) fell back slightly following an increase the year before. Conversely, more children and young people have been going on a walk (+5.5%), dancing (+4.1%) and doing gym or fitness (+7.1%). 

    Running, athletics and multi-sports have seen a small increase (+4.4%) following a drop 12 months earlier.

    Read less

Talking points

  • Gender

    Boys’ activity levels have fallen during the pandemic (-2.4%) while girls’ levels have increased (+2.7%).

    The decreases in boys were originally driven by the younger age groups but over the last 12 months have been among older boys. The number of boys in Years 7-8 (ages 11-13) who are active has fallen by 8.7%, while those in Years 9-11 (ages 13-16) have fallen by 7.2%. The recent increases for girls have come from the younger age groups while the gains we saw last summer among secondary school aged girls (ages 11-16) have been maintained.  

    Organised sport is a key contributor to activity levels among secondary age boys and disruption caused by the pandemic has impacted habits which are taking time to recover. Among teenage girls, it’s likely the choice of activities available suited them better. While some will have faced disruption to their organised activity, the data indicates many found more opportunities to go for a walk or do fitness activities. 

    Read less
  • Ethnicity

    Children and young people from White British (48%), White Other (47%) and Mixed (45%) backgrounds are more likely to be active than those from Asian (39%), Black (36%) and Other ethnic (38%) backgrounds.

    Within this, currently Asian and White Other boys are more likely to be active than Asian and White Other girls, respectively, while White British girls are more likely to be active than White British boys. 

    Black boys’ activity levels continue to be severely impacted by the pandemic. Both boys and girls of a Black ethnicity saw activity levels fall in 2019-20, however, while girls have seen a recovery, boys continue to see falls.  

    This is partly because Black boys get a larger proportion of their minutes of activity from activities such as team sports, that were unavailable during lockdown, but also because they are more likely to live in deprived inner-city areas and are less likely to have access to outside spaces.  

    Read less
  • Family affluence

    Children and young people from the least affluent families remain the least likely to be active. 

    Across the year as a whole, activity levels have fallen compared to pre-pandemic (2018-19) for children and young people from the least affluent families (-3.4%), while remaining unchanged for those from the most affluent families - widening the gap between the two.

    Read less
  • Swimming

    Around 850,000 (-11.8%) fewer children and young people swam across the academic year 2020-21 compared to 12 months earlier, with children in Years 1-2 (ages 5-7) seeing the largest annual drop (-20.7%). 

    The data shows that 76% of children in Year 7 (first year of secondary school, ages 11-12) can swim 25m unaided and there’s been no reportable change in this compared to 12 months ago.  

    However, swimming proficiency increases with age and an average of 58% of all children and young people in Years 1-11 (ages 5-16) can swim 25m unaided.

    This is significantly down (-5.7%) on 12 months ago, driven by large drops among primary age children, indicating a potential proficiency gap in the years to come. 

    Read less
  • Mental wellbeing

    More than one in 10, or over 350,000, young people (Years 7-11, ages 11-16), report feeling lonely often or always. 

    While the largest increase in loneliness compared to 12 months ago have come in those feeling lonely some of the time, often/always has also seen a small increase.

    As restrictions were imposed, many children and young people were unable to engage with others in the way they were accustomed to – playing sport with others for instance was not permitted, so it's unsurprising to see these increases. 

    There's also a positive association between levels of engagement in sport and physical activity and levels of mental wellbeing.  

    Read less
  • Individual development

    Individual development scores are down since the start of the pandemic. 

    Active children and young people, and those who volunteer to support sport are shown to have higher individual development scores so, while the drops in these is likely to be a factor in the lower individual development scores reported, sport and physical activity has a key role to play in helping recover these levels.

    Read less
  • Attitudes towards sport and physical activity

    Fewer children are enjoying taking part in sport and physical activity.

    The number of children in Years 1-2 (age 5-7) who say they love sport is down 2.7% to 55%, while the number of children who say they love being active has fallen 3.9% to 61%. The percentage of children who find sport easy has fallen 2.6% to 80%.   

    There have also been falls in enjoyment, confidence, competence, understanding and knowledge for those aged between 11-16. 

    This matters as 60% of young people in secondary school are active when they report 'strongly agree' with the five positive attitudes, compared to just 33% when they report no positive attitudes. 

    Active children are happier, have higher levels of individual development and higher levels of community development.  

    Read less

What we're doing to help

Throughout the pandemic, Join the Movement – our £3.5m National Lottery-funded campaign – has encouraged children and young people to stay active regardless of the restrictions in place at the time and has played an important role in helping to motivate and provide guidance on how to find free, accessible activities. 

We’ve also supported the sector financially, and our Community Emergency Fund and Return to Play Funds have helped keep sports clubs and activity providers going through this very difficult period. 

Other ways we’re helping to keep children and young people active include: 

  • working with the Youth Sport Trust and various sports to create the Active Recovery Hub – an online catalogue of more than 500 resources for schools and families to use across the summer term and holidays. There have been more than 32,000 views of the Hub.

  • investing £13.5m into secondary teacher training, which has already benefited 75% (2,600) of secondaries – helping teachers and schools better meet the needs of all children, especially those that don’t like PE.

  • investing £1.5m into a new digital platform, Studio You, designed to help PE teachers engage the least active girls through non-traditional online lessons. This launched in September and is free for all secondary schools. 

  • investing £19m into the School Games, ensuring many more youngsters get the chance to play competitive sport – 2.6m opportunities and 75% of schools have registered to take part on the website – and the network of 450 School Games Organisers. 

  • investing £10.1m of Department for Education money to help open school sports facilities outside of the school day, at weekends and during holidays, which is being deployed via Active Partnerships. 

  • investing £1.9m of National Lottery funding into 11 Active Partnerships to work with their local primary schools to deliver the Daily Mile. More than 2,600 new schools have so far delivered the Daily Mile or an active mile as part of this work. 

Last week we published our latest implementation plan for our long-term strategy, Uniting the Movement. The plan, which sets out what we want to do and how we’ll work from 2022-25, stresses the importance of creating positive experiences for children and young people that are created with opportunities designed around fun, inclusivity and safety, as well as choice. 

Ministers' comments

  • Sports Minister - Nigel Huddleston

    “We know that the pandemic has had an impact on participation rates in grassroots sport, which is why we are prioritising physical activity as we work to build back better.

    "We have supported the elite, grassroots and leisure sectors with an unprecedented £1 billion to ensure access to sports is available to all and have recently invested a further £75 million in multi-sport grassroots pitches across the country. 

    "I continue to urge everyone across the nation, particularly children and young people, to enjoy the benefits of getting active and aim for the Chief Medical Officer's target of 60 mins a day for children and 150 minutes a week for adults."

    Read less
  • Children and families Minister - Will Quince

    "Protecting face-to-face education is our top priority. We know that the pandemic impacted many children’s physical activity, but it’s welcome news that with some age groups and with girls, we’re seeing this picture start to change for the better.

    "In recent months I’ve seen first-hand how vital schools have been in facilitating sport, PE lessons and after-school clubs to the best of their ability.

    "Our new funding of nearly £30 million per year to help schools open their sport facilities outside of the school day, and improve primary PE teaching, is helping with this.

    "We’re working closely with Sport England and across government to continue prioritising children and young people’s activity and will update our School Sport and Activity Action Plan next year – but taking part in sport shouldn’t stop at the school gates, so with extra-curricular clubs back up and running, and our Holiday Activity and Food programme continuing over the Christmas holidays, I want to encourage all children to get out there, get active and most importantly, have fun."

    Read less

Further reading

Today’s Active Lives report also shows the pandemic has prevented many children and young people from volunteering. Our head of volunteering, Kristen Natale, has written a blog that explains why this matters and looks at what's being done to help.    

Read the blog

What's next?

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 28 April. It’ll cover the period from November 2020 to November 2021. It'll reflect some months of restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus, as well as the easing of restrictions across spring and summer.  

Additional information

Our Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI, gives the most comprehensive overview of the sport and physical activity habits of children in England.   

It looks at the number of children taking part in a wide range of sport and physical activities (ranging from dance and scooting to active play and team sports) at moderate intensity.  

The report’s based on responses from, and on behalf of, more than 100,000 children aged 5-16 in England during the academic year 2020/2021, making it one of the largest studies of its kind in the world. 

Sign up to our newsletter

You can find out exactly how we'll look after your personal data, but rest assured we’ll only use it to make sure you receive our newsletter, to understand how you interact with our newsletter, and to provide administrative information about our newsletter.