News Release

Motor skills and physical activity practice supports preschoolers’ learning

A doctoral thesis has demonstrated that motor skills and physical activity practice can support the cognitive and early academic skills of preschoolers.

Reports and Proceedings

University of Helsinki

A doctoral thesis has demonstrated that motor skills and physical activity practice can support the cognitive and early academic skills of preschoolers, particularly when the activities include motor skills practice, or when motor skills or physical activity practice is combined with the subject to be learnt.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about children and adolescents being less physically active and having weaker motor skills than previous generations. A further cause of concern is the decline of for instance mathematical and language skills, with an increasing number of children in schools and kindergartens needing support in their learning. Prior research has shown that physical inactivity is a new risk factor for skills development. 

Doctoral Researcher Pinja Jylänki from the University of Helsinki investigated whether physical activity and motor skills practice can support the development of cognitive and early academic skills in children of preschool age.

Physical activity or motor skills practice should be combined with the subject taught

In systematic reviews included in her doctoral thesis, Jylänki examined a total of 57 previously completed studies on the topic. Roughly 70% of these studies had demonstrated that motor skill and physical activity interventions have positive effects on preschoolers’ cognitive and early academic skills. 

Effects had been observed particularly in children’s memory and executive function as well as language and early numeracy skills. The most marked effects were seen as a result of motor skills practice, or when motor skills or physical activity practice was combined with the topic being taught. 

“The findings support the idea that practising one skill, motor skills in this case, supports the learning of another skill, that is, early academic or cognitive skills, more than a quantitative increase of physical activity alone,” Jylänki says.

Based on the prior research, it is also advisable to combine the practice of different skills, as such combination was found to be more effective compared to practising motor skills or physical activity exclusively.

However, the field is relatively new, and further research of a high standard is needed to verify the results.

Intervention programme narrowed down learning differences in early numeracy skills

In her doctoral thesis, Jylänki and her colleagues developed an intervention programme called Movement with Early Numeracy. This programme for practising motor and early numeracy skills is designed for Finnish early childhood education. It supports children with challenges in early numeracy skills.

Movement with Early Numeracy combines the practice of numerical concepts with motor skills practice. Concepts describing numerical relational skills, such as ‘more’, ‘less’ or ‘half’ and ‘whole’, were first practised in a story read for children, after which the same concepts were incorporated into motor skills training. The effects of practice were observed in 36 children.

According to the study, the effects were positive, and a delayed measurement showed that the effects remained approximately eight weeks following the intervention. Moreover, differences in numerical relational skills decreased in the eight-week period between children whose performance was lower at the beginning of the intervention and the average performance control group. There were no significant differences between the groups at the end of the intervention. 

“The novelty value of this finding is boosted by the fact that, in previous intervention programmes for early numeracy practice, long-term effects or the narrowing of differences between children with lower and average performance have not often been identified,” Jylänki says.

Jylänki’s doctoral thesis is part of the Active Early Numeracy research project led by Professor Pirjo Aunio (University of Helsinki) and Associate Professor Arja Sääkslahti (University of Jyväskylä).

Jylänki will continue, together with the Active Numeracy research group, to investigate the Movement with Early Numeracy intervention programme using a larger sample.

To gain more information on the effects of the intervention, its effects will also be compared with those of practising motor skills or early numeracy alone. Following the completion of these studies, the programme will be released for public use free of charge.

Pinja Jylänki, Master of Sport Science, defended her doctoral thesis entitled “Active Early Interventions - Supporting Preschoolers’ Cognitive and Academic Skills with Fundamental Motor Skill and Physical Activity Interventions” on 5 May 2023 at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki.


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