Want better grades? Make time for play

Some experts believe physical play has a key role in your child’s academic performance.
Some experts believe physical play has a key role in your child’s academic performance.


As parents pour more and more money into after-school tutorial sessions, it behoves us to stop and ask if we're getting our money's worth. Some experts say we aren't.

"Contrary to people’s perception, having a private tutor might be counterproductive," says Euston Quah, Ph.D., professor of economics at Nanyang Technological University, who co-wrote a 2005 paper on the subject and summarized his findings in the Straits Times.

It turns out that additional after-school tuition does not always mean better performance over non-tutored peers; beyond a certain point, tutoring brings "diminishing returns.”

"The potentially positive influence of a private tutor over one or a few subjects’ grades does not seem to lead to improvements in the grades of the remaining subjects," explains Quah. "Instead, the time taken away from studying those other subjects may lead to a decline in the overall academic performance of the student."

So have we parents been going about this all wrong? If additional tutoring hours don't actually deliver the results we expect, what does?

What smart kids do
Prepare for a surprise: it turns out the really smart kids get out and play, and we don't mean on the Xbox.

Research shows that academic excellence seems to go hand in hand with physical activity.
A New York City administration study found that students at the top 5 percent in fitness scores had higher-than-average maths and reading scores than the bottom 5 percent, with the gap between the two groups approaching 36 percentile points.

A similar study pursued by the California Department of Education discovered that teens who met a pre-determined standard of fitness did twice as well on tests as their unfit peers. And a review conducted by the Netherlands-based Vrije Universiteit Medical Centre found "strong evidence of a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance." The review found that increased physical activity improves blood flow to the brain and saturates it with mood-improving hormones, priming the child for learning.

How to spend after-school hours
It may run against the grain of today's competitive parenting paradigm—after all, an estimated 97 percent of Singapore school kids go to after-school tutors—but there it is. If you want to give your child a lasting academic edge, you need to un-structure their after-school hours; kill the TV, iPad and gaming consoles; and set them loose on the playgrounds.

Free your kids from the endless cycle of more study hours and more time with private tutors, and allow them to exercise their creativity and imagination in physical play.

Beyond grades
Amika Singh, Ph.D., leader of the aforementioned Dutch study, explains that physical play provides benefits far beyond the capacity of any math tutor to give. "Children learn by participating in sports, learning rules, and learning to act appropriately in a social environment," Dr. Singh told Time magazine. "And that translates into the classroom, where children who are physically active may adhere better to classroom rules and get along better with teachers and classmates.

"So academic performance may just be the short term benefit of exercise; there are a whole range of social and behavioural benefits that go beyond grades as well."