Preschool children running in a park. Credit: Getty Images

Study Aims to Assess Impact of Physical Activity Intervention on Cognitive Development of Young Children in Low Socioeconomic Areas

UMass Amherst kinesiologist is piloting program at Western Massachusetts preschools

In an effort to address health disparities linked to low socioeconomic environments, a University of Massachusetts Amherst kinesiologist is partnering with Western Massachusetts preschools to implement a physical activity program for young children.

Sofiya Alhassan, professor of kinesiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, will measure the impact of a gross motor skills-based physical activity program on the cognitive development of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in preschools in communities with low socioeconomic status (SES) in the Greater Springfield area.

“Given that most U.S. preschool-aged children spend the majority of their day in preschool centers, these centers are uniquely positioned to help children establish healthy lifestyles,” Alhassan says.

If the pilot study proves feasible, Alhassan plans to use the findings to support a subsequent large-scale randomized controlled trial to see if the intervention can effect sustained improvement in preschoolers’ cognitive health and gross motor skills.

Sofiya Alhassan

The end goal is to establish a proven intervention that can be easily integrated into preschool early education learning standards and help us to level the playing field.

Sofiya Alhassan, professor of kinesiology

“The end goal,” Alhassan says, “is to establish a proven intervention that can be easily integrated into preschool early education learning standards and help us to level the playing field.”

Social determinants of health have a major impact on people’s health, well-being and quality of life. In a broad sense, the conditions where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship and age affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risks, contributing to wide health disparities and inequities.

This is particularly evident in preschool-age children. Research has shown that being raised in a low socioeconomic environment contributes to higher-than-average levels of inattention and lower self-regulation in preschoolers, as well as lower performance in gross motor skills and cognition, such as executive function and memory.

These environmental disadvantages place young children at an increased risk for poor academic achievement and low physical activity levels, Alhassan explains.

“We know that low SES preschoolers also show slower gross motor skill development,” she says. “Gross motor skills form the building blocks for a healthy and active lifestyle since these skills must be mastered before the development of more complex motor skills. Physical activity, including gross motor skills learning, enhance neural development, particularly the development of areas associated with cognitive functions, including the frontal cortex and hippocampus.”

Alhassan will carry out the pilot project with funding from a two-year, $429,744 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Participants at the preschools will be randomly assigned to either a movement and cognition (MAC) or a control group. Intervention activities will be embedded into the Massachusetts early learning standard and implemented by trained classroom teachers.

Alhassan will collect data on executive function and memory, gross motor skills and physical activity levels at baseline, three-month and six-month intervals. She’ll also examine the preliminary efficacy of the intervention by evaluating study fidelity and factors such as intervention dosage.

Totman Building at UMass Amherst

Earlier this summer, Alhassan was elected as one of 200 fellows to the National Academy of Kinesiology – one of the highest honors in the field.