By Rachel Boswell, Communications Manager (Education) at the British Science Association


The belated Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games were a long time coming. And a long time it was for many athletes.

Indeed, within the space of a season, athletes may suddenly be judged too unfit, too slow, too injured or too dispirited to compete at the highest level of their sport, so brilliant yet brutal is the competition in the elite sphere. As a result, the year-long Olympic and Paralympic pause could have markedly changed the face of the athletes who were selected to take part in Japan. 

Thanks to these tough qualification standards for athletes, the Games in Tokyo, like those elsewhere, delivered a stream of impressive, almost superhuman sporting spectacles; glittery products of gruelling training regimes, gritty resolve and great mental and physical efforts. Whether they do dressage or discus, an elite athlete at work is something to behold, with a podium position being tangible recognition of their performance.

Olympians and Paralympians can therefore be viewed as brilliant role models for schoolchildren, particularly those with grand athletic dreams of their own. But how can schools and parents nurture sporting aspiration, commitment and participation in children without going to excess and potentially killing the enjoyment of exercise itself? While medals are magnificent and personal bests are to be proud of, it is important that children do not solely associate sport with winning and intense levels of exertion. Rather, they should be taught to appreciate physical exercise as a diverse hobby, as a gateway to good health, and as a fascinating branch of science. The links between sport and STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and maths – are, after all, more extensive than many people may realise.

Take the study of the human body, for instance – the very thing that we use in part or in full, in its own unique capacity, to conduct a physical activity. When learning about the skeleton, organs, muscles and more in science lessons, children can discover the nuts and bolts that enable them to play football with their friends, throw a ball or swim in the sea. With the benefits of sport on mental health now being well-known, children can also learn about aspects of psychology through physical activity, and find out how exercise can support both their emotional and physiological wellbeing.

Beyond this, children can investigate the equipment that they use for different sports, looking at anything from the materials of a tennis racket and pair of trainers to the structure of an 800m running track. What is carbon fibre? What are swimming costumes made from and why? Materials scientists, designers and engineers of the future could be born from such encounters.

Maths, too, is an important but often overlooked component of sport. Familiarity with distance and time helps us to calculate our running speed, for example, and an understanding of angles could help to win a penalty shoot-out – which we all know to be important.

Whether their stadium is the school playground or the living room, all children should be encouraged to do the physical activity of their choosing at their own, increasingly more challenging but achievable pace, and to learn plenty of sports-based science along the way.