In a recent study from Ohio State, white kindergarten children were nearly three times as likely as children of other races and ethnicities to participate in after-school sports. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, is part of the larger project, Early Learning Ohio, that looks at children’s learning and social development from preschool through third grade.
Researchers examined inequalities in children’s access and participation in extracurricular activities by looking at 401 kindergarten students across 31 classrooms in Ohio’s sixth-largest school district, which spans urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods. Most of the students in that district were English-speaking, with half of the students receiving free and reduced lunch. Researchers analyzed participation in five extracurricular activities: tutoring, sports, religious activities, artistic lessons and organizations such as Scouts.
“There’s quite a bit of research looking at the positive benefits for adolescents who participate in extracurricular activities,” said Arianna Black, a third-year Ph.D. student at Ohio State and one of the study’s co-authors. “We found that young children are participating at about the same rate as adolescents, but we know comparatively very little about who participates in terms of young children and what benefits might be associated when young children participate in extracurricular activities.”
The study revealed that race, gender, income and the mother’s education emerged as determining factors for extracurricular participation. Among those demographic factors, race and the mother’s education showed the strongest links to participation. The results point to a continued and troubling gap in opportunities that has persisted in recent years; white children were 2.5 times more likely to participate in athletics compared to their peers.
Racial minority students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t participate in extracurriculars at a young age could miss out on opportunities later in life that could help them succeed academically, according to Elise Allen, a graduate student in Ohio State’s educational studies program and a co-author on the study.
Students whose mothers held higher levels of education were also twice as likely to play after-school sports.
47% of children whose mothers held a high school degree or less, participated in sports compared to 74% whose mothers received a bachelor’s degree and 96% who held a graduate or professional degree.
Those numbers reflected a similar association with participation across the range of extracurriculars. Children whose mothers held a graduate or professional degree had the highest levels of participation in each extracurricular, with the exception of religious activities. Black noted that they only used mothers, not fathers, as a variable in the study. The questionnaire, which was available in both English and Spanish, asked caretakers to respond to questions about their demographics, home environment, language status and extracurricular participation.
“What we find is that in general, mothers tend to be the people filling out these types of surveys,” she said. “Particularly with the Early Learning Ohio survey…So it might be a byproduct of that sort of larger trend when it comes to giving surveys.”
While researchers also probed whether there was a link between participation in extracurricular activities and growth in vocabulary development, they found no increase. Previous studies have indicated a link, albeit small, between social interactions and vocabulary skills. Research has also shown that poverty negatively impacts a child’s language development. Ohio State researchers noted that those previous studies used a larger sample of 10,000 children and that their own study may have needed a larger sample size to find a relationship between extracurricular activities and vocabulary outcomes.
“There might need to be a more nuanced measure of extracurricular activities that captures critical variation in activity and participation,” Black said. “Things like frequency of intensity, how long they’ve been participating, things like that would probably give us more information in terms of how extracurricular activity participation is related to some of those academic outcomes, such as expressive vocabulary.”
The study also dug into how the children’s gender affected their participation in extracurricular activities. The research indicated that girls were at least 2.5 times as likely as boys to participate in certain activities, particularly organizations and lessons.
“It was interesting to see some of these gender gaps,” Black said. “Our study doesn’t look at why any of these gaps are occurring. So, I think that’s a really interesting area for future research.”
Researchers recommended that programs designed to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged children should pay close attention to the demographic factors that still determine extracurricular participation. Those programs could even the playing field for children by subsidizing activities and providing compensation for low-income families. The study pointed to Tennessee, which has set aside grant funding for after-school activities and prioritizes serving low-income students and those with disabilities. School districts also could increase access and participation by advertising activities and sign-up information during kindergarten enrollment.