A third of Australian children aged 12 to 13 in low-income suburbs do not participate in any extracurricular activities. That’s 2.5 times more than those in high-income suburbs – only 13% of them don’t participate – according to a study we’ll be presenting next week at the Australian Social Policy Conference. Yet research also shows that it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are likely to benefit the most from participating in extracurricular activities.
Most children in Australia play sports or participate in an extracurricular activity such as dance, drama or boy scouts. All of these activities can be beneficial for their health and their academic performance. For these children, these activities are generally available, accessible, affordable and safe.
However, many children who live outside major cities or in poorer suburbs face major barriers to participation. Cost is a barrier. A Mission Australia report shows that young people whose parents do not have paid work have low participation rates in sport and cultural activities.
Another obstacle is the lack of access to public transport. Low-income suburbs also often lack clubs and facilities to organize extracurricular activities.
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What help do governments offer?
State and territory governments offer vouchers or grants to help families meet some of the costs of these activities. But the rules of these programs can be arbitrary and inconsistent, and only address some of the barriers to participation. Diets often exclude non-sporting activities, despite the educational and psychological benefits equal to or greater than those provided by sport.
Vouchers can usually be used to partially cover registration fees. Their value varies across the country:
In some states and territories (Qld, Tas, Vic, WA) vouchers are only for children named on health care cards or retiree concession cards. In others (NT, NSW, SA) vouchers are more freely available.
When vouchers are widely available, affluent families and communities tend to use them more. Low-income families may not have the money to cover the full costs of participating in an activity, or may not be familiar with voucher schemes, despite their greater need for assistance with costs.
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Sports vouchers increase sports participation. Yet heavy personal expenses remain.
Some clubs have taken imaginative steps to reduce these costs, such as trading in parent volunteer time for fees. But such approaches are not widely used and are not perfect.
Support is needed beyond sport to close the gap
While sport is good for development, many children also enjoy participating in non-sport activities. Research shows that the academic and psychological benefits of these activities are equivalent or may exceed those provided by sport.
In our research presented next week, we found that children from more affluent communities generally reported high bonds with their peers and belonging to school, regardless of their participation in activities. But children from disadvantaged communities who participate in extracurricular activities reported significantly higher results than non-participants. They almost closed the gap with children from high income communities. This effect appears whether the activity is athletic or non-athletic.
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While non-sporting activities have comparable benefits, most vouchers are limited to “sport and active leisure”. This generally includes dancing but excludes other creative activities.
Only two jurisdictions (NT and NSW) explicitly offer vouchers that cover artistic, musical and cultural activities. The NT Urban Sports Vouchers program includes cultural and artistic activities. NSW is offering a $ 100 per year Universal Creative Kids voucher (in addition to its Active Kids sport voucher). It is specifically intended for artistic and cultural activities.
Not all interests of children involve kicking a ball or swimming laps in a pool. Arbitrarily excluding non-sporting activities from government subsidies can prevent disadvantaged children from participating in the activities they enjoy most. In contrast, wealthier families are better able to support these activities without government assistance.
Extracurricular activities take place outside of the classroom and are not imposed by a defined curriculum. Participation is therefore voluntary and the decision is motivated by interests and a desire to be surrounded by friends.
By deciding which activities to subsidize, governments take that decision away from children and their parents. Governments must ensure that the needs and wants of children are taken into account when providing grants.
Grants alone are not enough
Expanding grants to cover more expenses and types of activities will increase participation. But grants cannot solve all problems.
For starters, most activities cannot take place without suitable sports fields or indoor spaces. For example, the lack of changing rooms sometimes hinders efforts to increase women’s sport participation. Likewise, children from poor suburbs may not feel welcome in other suburbs where activities are taking place.
Local boards and schools have traditionally provided the infrastructure for extracurricular activities. However, some councils have gone further in coordinating access to these activities. For example, the town of Playford, in the northern suburb of Adelaide, has partnered with government, philanthropic and community organizations to encourage all ten-year-olds to participate.
Some non-governmental organizations and community leaders have also developed promising local initiatives. Evaluating these initiatives can hopefully inform future efforts across the country. We need a broader and more generous approach to help local organizations build thriving communities.
Experts and advocacy groups agree that all children should have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. Australia needs more programs that allow children to participate in the activities of their choice.