|Abstract or Summary
- Early learning skills, such as executive function (EF), are a key component of healthy development and predict long-term academic success. Yet many children are entering kindergarten without the necessary skills (including EF) that are needed to set them on a successful learning trajectory. Early prekindergarten classrooms that encourage a high quality learning environment have shown a positive impact on the development of EF. However, because learning also takes place outside the classroom through fine and gross motor play, there is also a need to better understand the role of the physical body in the learning process. To address this gap, this dissertation focused on visual motor skills (VMS), and sport participation as tools that could be used to promote school readiness and long term academic success. Study I examined direct and interactive effects among different aspects of EF (working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control) and VMS with math and literacy achievement at four time points between the prekindergarten and kindergarten year. At the fall of prekindergarten, a behavioral measure of EF, working memory, and inhibitory control were directly associated with math. In addition, children’s VMS, working memory and cognitive flexibility were associated with initial literacy scores. Growth in math between the fall and spring of prekindergarten was predicted by VMS, a behavioral measure of EF, and a measure of cognitive flexibility, with working memory predicting growth between the spring of prekindergarten and the fall of kindergarten. For literacy, measures of VMS, working memory, and cognitive flexibility in the fall of prekindergarten predicted growth in literacy during the spring. In addition, at two transitional points, during the fall of prekindergarten and kindergarten, VMS compensated for low cognitive flexibility and behavioral EF on initial math achievement (fall), and for growth in math between the spring of prekindergarten and fall of kindergarten, respectively.
For Study II, 15 youth sports (e.g., soccer, basketball, swimming, running) were categorized by being either open- or closed-skilled and by intensity to assess if children who play open-skilled sports, metabolically intense sports, or both, have higher EF, literacy, and math scores. The interaction between open-skilled sports and intensity was also explored with EF, literacy, and math. Results showed the relationship between sport intensity and EF varied by the number of open-skilled sports, with sport intensity more related to EF for children who play fewer open-skilled sports and less related for children who played a greater number of open-skilled sports. For math, results differed for open-skilled and intense sports, with intensity associated with lower math scores, and open-skilled sports associated with higher math scores. Together, these studies offer a unique view into the role of the physical body and movement in the learning process, and could inform interventions aimed at promoting and maintaining EF and academic achievement prior to, and after entering formal school.