Background: Executive function involves a number of cognitive processes that are integral to the self-regulation of behaviour and developing social and cognitive competence in young children. Physical activity is increasingly recognised as an important determinant of cognitive functioning among older populations but less is known about these relationships in early childhood. In younger populations, it has been suggested that interventions aiming to increase physical activity should focus on children’s physical literacy. Physical literacy can be defined as developing capabilities in the physical, psychological, cognitive and social domains that facilitate and promote an active lifestyle across the life course. The contribution of physical literacy programs to the healthy development of language and executive function during early childhood is yet to be fully investigated. In this randomised controlled trial, we examined the effect of a physical literacy curriculum, delivered in an early learning centre setting on child executive function and language development.
Methods: 321 children aged 3-5 years from 16 early learning centres were randomly assigned to the intervention (8 centres; n=169 children) or control group (7 centres, n=152 children). The intervention group received 20 weeks of the physical literacy curriculum, while the control group received usual practice care. Executive function (inhibition [Go/NoGo]; visual spatial working memory [Mr Ant]; shifting [Card Sort]) and expressive vocabulary was assessed using the Early Years Tool Box. Linear mixed effects models were used to determine differences in groups, adjusting for clustering of children within centres.
Results: Children receiving the intervention had greater improvements on measures of inhibition (β =1.97, p=.001) and expressive vocabulary (β=0.5, p=.033), compared to control group children. No significant differences were observed for visual-spatial working memory or shifting.
Discussion: A physical literacy curriculum that aligns with the Australian Early Years Learning Framework and is fully integrated into early learning centre practices is beneficial in improving aspects of young children’s executive function and language development. These data support the case for greater investment in physical literacy professional development for educators working in early learning centres.
Conflict of interest statement: My co-authors and I acknowledge that we have no conflict of interest of relevance to the submission of this abstract.