Sport in the digital age is even more crucial for New Zealand school students, a leading Auckland secondary school educationalist believes.

Daniel Mathie, year 11 dean and a physical education teacher at ACG Parnell College, says because young people spend a lot of their time online many are less active than children were in the past.

Parents are understandably more cautious about letting their kids out to play," he says. "They are only trying to protect them, but in earlier times when there was no internet kids were more active and outside playing tag, chasing each other on their bikes or climbing all over jungle gyms.

"So to me, sport is more crucial than ever before."

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Mathie's comments come as research - which shows academic achievements can be boosted if students take part in sport or are physically active - has renewed the debate over the benefit of sport in schools.

In the US a new study has, for example, offered evidence that fitness in children can aid maths skills. The research, highlighted in San Francisco-based PLOS One, a scientific journal published by the US Public Library of Science, tested children aged 9 and 10 and found those who were fitter had better maths scores.

In Britain a study by British Universities and Sport (BUCS) in 2013 showed that involvement in university sport boosts students' employment prospects – and provides opportunities to develop leadership skills.

Mathie, who has been teaching at ACG Parnell College (one of five independent schools operated in New Zealand by ACG Education) for 16 years, says physical activity can literally make you smarter.

"I'm not telling you anything that has not been scientifically proven," he says. "The evidence shows there is a link."

Mathie also thinks schools are one of the last chances children have of getting involved in sport: "Where else are they going to get the chance? It is so easy to put kids in front of an iPad and I believe schools have a real role to play in involving them in sport.

"The involvement of our students in co-curricular sport in 2017 was 63 per cent, which is 10 per cent higher than the national average."

He says PE is compulsory at ACG Parnell College up to the end of year 10. During this time students spend up to 80 minutes each week in a sports activity.

"It is not highly competitive, but we cover a whole range of sports by teaching them the fundamentals. We are trying to foster an interest in sport where the aim is not primarily on winning but is fun and elevates the heart rate," he says. "This can bring the same benefits as competitive sport.

"It is recommended people do 120 minutes of physical activity a week - and schools play a key role in providing the means and encouragement for that to happen," Mathie says.

Danny O'Connor, principal of ACG Strathallan, says the old adage of 'a healthy body equals a healthy mind' is absolutely true.

"Sport teaches many life lessons and helps develop the skills and qualities required to be successful," he says. "Self-discipline, focus, teamwork and resilience are enhanced and there are also a wide range of social benefits."

O'Connor says students at ACG Strathallan are strongly encouraged to play a sport, to get involved in something they are passionate about and to continue once they leave school.

"ACG has a strong academic record but we know a good education is more than just that," he says. "We aim to provide our students with a challenging holistic education and have five key elements to this - academics, student well-being, sport activities and the arts, experiential education outside of the classroom and leadership and service."

O'Connor says although sport is at the heart of a lot of New Zealand communities, not all students are interested in it or see it as an outlet. He says the arts and activities like drama can also play a key role in student performance.

"Traditional assumptions about the interrelationship between the arts and learning are now being supported by research showing there is indeed a link with student achievement and gains in maths, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking and verbal skills," he says.

"Participation can improve motivation, concentration, confidence and teamwork. Whatever makes students feel good - and some get it from rugby, others from maths - will help them to learn well."