Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Testing the Association between Physical Activity Level and Executive Functions in Early Childhood
Center: NCER Year: 2016
Principal Investigator: Willoughby, Michael Awardee: RTI International
Program: Early Learning Programs and Policies      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (7/1/2016 – 6/30/2020) Award Amount: $1,399,214
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A160035

Co-Principal Investigator: Catellier, Diane

Purpose: The purpose of this project was to examine whether and under what conditions individual differences in child physical activity in preschool settings were associated with enhanced executive functioning and academic achievement. Opportunities for children to engage in physical activity at school (e.g., recess, physical education) have diminished over time due to school's increased emphasis on academic accountability. Growing evidence at the time of this project, however, suggests that increased levels of physical activity are associated with improved cognitive function and perhaps academic achievement. The magnitude of the effects of physical activity on children's cognitive and academic outcomes remains uncertain and little is known about whether increased opportunities for physical activity are associated with improved academic achievement, especially given the potential for loss in instructional time.

Project Activities: The researchers conducted a naturalistic observational study (study 1) to investigate whether normative variation in physical activity and motor skills contributed to children's executive functioning (EF) and numeracy skills. Because the researchers accomplished study objectives faster and at less expense than originally planned, they also developed, implemented, and evaluated a differentiated motor skills intervention (study 2). The researchers found that, compared to children who were randomly assigned to a wait-list control condition, children who participated in the 8-week intervention demonstrated improvements in motor, EF, and numeracy skills.

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this project are as follows:

  • In contrast to studies involving older children, the researchers found no evidence that children's physical activity contributed to EF or numeracy skills (Willoughby, Hudson, Hong, & Wylie 2021).
  • The researchers documented that normative variation in preschool-aged children's motor skill development (but not the intensity of their physical activity) was associated with improvements in their EF and numeracy skills across a single academic year (Willoughby, Hudson, Hong, & Wylie 2021).
  • The researchers demonstrated that exposing children to an 8-week differentiated motor skill intervention resulted in improvements in motor, EF, and numeracy skills (Hudson, Ballou, & Willoughby 2020).
  • Taken together, the results from this project underscore that efforts to support motor skill development in preschool settings contributes to children's school readiness skills.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Participating childcare settings (n = 15 centers: 13 centers in study 1 and 2 centers in study 2) were located in a mix of (sub)urban communities in central North Carolina.

Sample: A total of 283 children (from 13 preschool centers) from participated in study 1 (M = 4.2 years old, 55 percent female, 41 percent non-Hispanic White, 37 percent non-Hispanic Black; 10 percent Hispanic, 10 percent mixed race, 2 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian). A total of 54 children from a community preschool and Head Start center participated in study 2 (M = 4.3 years old, 58 percent female, information on race/ethnicity was not collected).

Factors: This project focused on children's physical activity level, motor skills, executive functioning, and numeracy skills.

Research Design and Methods: In study 1, the researchers used a multiple cohort observational design. They collected repeated measures data across three 1-week periods in the fall, winter, and spring of the academic year. In study 2, researchers used an experimental, pre- and post-test design that used within-classroom, student-level randomization to the active intervention or wait-list conditions to mitigate the impact of classroom or center level effects.

Control Condition: Study 1 had no control condition. Study 2 included a business-as-usual, wait-list control condition.

Key Measures: The researchers used commercial accelerometers (Actigraph Model wGT3X-BT) to measure physical activity and Pate's criteria to generate the proportion of time that children spent in sedentary, light, and moderate-vigorous physical activity. They used standardized tests to measure motor skills (i.e., Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency-Second Edition, Short Form) and numeracy skills (i.e., Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement, Applied Problems subtest). They also used a researcher-developed measure of EF skills (i.e., Willoughby-Blair EF Touch battery).

Data Analytic Strategy: In study 1, the researchers used mixed linear models with adaptive centering, which provided inferences about within- and between-child effects. In study 2, researchers used analysis of covariance models.

Publications and Products

ERIC Citations: Find available citations in ERIC for this award here.

Select Publications:

Hudson, K. N., & Willoughby, M. T. (2022). Evaluating the factor structure and criterion validity of the Canadian Little DCDQ: Associations between motor competence, executive functions, early numeracy skills, and ADHD in early childhood. Assessment, 29(6), 1134–1143.

Hudson, K. & Willoughby, M. (2021). Research brief: The multiple benefits of motor competence skills in early childhood. RTI Press. doi:10.3768/rtipress.2021.rb.0027.2108

Hudson, K., Ballou, H., & Willoughby, M. (2020). Short report: Improving motor competence skills in early childhood has corollary benefits for executive function and numeracy skills. Developmental Science. doi: 10.1111/desc.13071.

Willoughby, M., Hudson, K., Hong, Y, & Wiley, A. (2021). Improvements in motor competence skills are associated with improved executive function and math problem-solving skills in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 57(9), 1463–1470. doi: 10.1037/dev0001223

Willoughby, M.T., Hong, Y. Hudson, K. & Wylie, A. (2020). Between- and within-person contributions of simple reaction time to executive function skills in early childhood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2019.104779