Physical Activity and Motor Proficiency in Learning Contexts of Primary School Children: Relationships with Academic Performance.

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

Levels of physical activity, physical fitness and motor skill proficiency in Australian primary school children are concerningly low and emerging evidence suggests that academic outcomes may be correlated with these factors. In children and adolescents, there is strong evidence to suggest that motor skill proficiency is favourably associated with health-related outcomes, including cardiorespiratory fitness, weight status and participation in physical activity. Thus, developing children’s motor proficiency may not only improve health outcomes, but also those of an academic nature.

Primary school-aged children spend a considerable amount of their time at school. The primary school setting therefore presents an opportune environment through which to support the ongoing physical development of children, particularly their motor skill development. However, further knowledge is needed regarding the specific relationships between motor proficiency and academic outcomes in children in the early years of primary school in Australia. The frequency, type and exact context of children’s physical activity occurring in early primary school classrooms must also be ascertained, along with the barriers and facilitators to increasing physical activity during school class time. Finally, it is necessary to explore the feasibility of implementing classroom-based motor skill programs to children in the early years of primary school.

Therefore, the overall objectives of this doctoral program of research were to (i) investigate relationships between motor proficiency and academic performance in mathematics and reading in children in the early years of primary school in Australia; and (ii) explore whether early primary school classrooms in Australia are feasible settings to implement physical activity, particularly motor skill programs, as a strategy to promote children’s motor proficiency and academic outcomes. To meet these objectives, a progressive three-stage framework, drawn from a model for the development and evaluation of health promotion programs was employed.

Stage 1 of the thesis framework involved defining the problem and included a narrative review of the literature and a systematic review. Findings from the Narrative review (Chapter 2) revealed that Australian children are currently demonstrating low levels of physical activity, aerobic and muscular fitness and proficiency in motor skills. The need to explore strategies to support the physical development of Australian children, particularly within the school setting, was identified. Positive relationships between physical activity, cognition and academic performance in children and adolescents were consistently reported in the literature. However, there is currently inconclusive evidence to support a beneficial effect of physical activity interventions on children’s cognition and overall academic performance. Several key gaps in the literature were evident, including a lack of systematic reviews examining relationships between motor proficiency and specific academic outcomes in school-aged children and adolescents. Furthermore, a limited number of studies had previously examined the impact of school-based motor skill interventions, including classroom-based motor skill interventions, on children’s motor proficiency and academic outcomes.

To address these gaps in the literature, a Systematic review (Chapter 3) was conducted to identify, critically appraise, and synthesise the findings of studies examining the relationship between motor proficiency and academic performance in mathematics and reading in typically developing school-aged children and adolescents. Eligible studies were identified and critically appraised using a modified Downs and Black checklist. A total of 55 studies (51 observational, four experimental) of low to moderate methodological quality were eligible for inclusion. Key findings from observational studies included in the review revealed significant positive associations between both fine motor skills (specifically fine motor integration and total fine motor scores) and gross motor skills (specifically upper limb coordination, speed and agility and total gross motor scores) and mathematical and reading outcomes. However, the strength of the association was highest between fine motor skills and mathematical outcomes. Findings from four experimental studies examining the impact of school-based motor skill interventions on academic and motor proficiency outcomes revealed predominantly significant intervention effects on academic and motor proficiency outcomes. However, due to limitations in the methodological quality, this systematic review concluded that studies with more robust designs are required to evaluate these findings further.

Stage 2 of the thesis framework encompassed generating solutions and was informed by three studies. The first study (Study 1, Chapter 4) investigated associations between fine and gross motor proficiency and academic performance in mathematics and reading in a cohort of Year 1 children in Australia. The cross-sectional study included 55 Year 1 children (25 boys, 30 girls, mean age = 6.77 ± 0.40 years) from two primary schools in New South Wales, Australia. Motor proficiency and academic

Study 2 (Chapter 5) began to explore the feasibility of implementing physical activity, particularly motor skill programs, into early primary school classrooms in Australia by investigating existing levels of Year 1 children’s physical activity and the context of this physical activity during school class time. Future opportunities to incorporate physical activity, including motor skill activities, into the Year 1 class schedule were also identified. A cross-sectional classroom observation study was thus conducted with 34 Year 1 children (20 boys, 14 girls; mean age = 6.36 ± 0.34 years) from one primary school in Queensland, Australia. A modified version of the direct observation tool, the Observational System for Recording Physical Activity in Children – Elementary School was used to record Year 1 children’s physical activity and the context of this physical activity during school class time. Analysis of 44 h of observation (i.e., 5305 30 s observation intervals) revealed that Year 1 children were sedentary for the majority (86%) of observed intervals during class time. Levels of light (12% of intervals) and moderate to vigorous (2% of intervals) physical activity were observed infrequently. Organised physical activity (i.e., physical education/school sport) and classroom-based physical activity (i.e., incorporating movement into academic lessons and/or during transitions between lessons) were seldom observed (5.9% and 2.8% of intervals, respectively). Classroom-based physical activity was identified as a potential strategy to encourage children to be more active during class time.

Study 3 (Chapter 6) sought to further explore the feasibility of implementing classroom-based physical activity into early primary school classrooms. A cross-sectional survey was designed to explore the factors that may influence the provision of classroom-based physical activity to students in the early years of primary school, from the perspective of educators and school principals in Australia. A 45-item online questionnaire was administered to Australian classroom teachers and assistant, deputy and school principals working with students in Prep/Kindergarten to Year 2. Responses to closed and open-ended responses were analysed using a social ecological approach. A total of 34 of 75 participants responded to the survey (response rate 22%). Identified barriers to classroom-based physical activity included insufficient time, limited training opportunities and resources as well as educator attitudes towards physical activity and their confidence
to implement physical activity programs within the school setting. Proposed solutions to overcome these barriers included the provision of training and resources, including education about the potential benefits of classroom-based physical activity for children’s health and academic outcomes. Overall, multiple strategies, targeting both educators and the school, at an organisational level, were determined as being required to overcome the perceived barriers to providing classroom-based physical activity to students in the early years of school in Australia.

Having defined the problem in Stage 1 of the thesis framework and investigated means of generating solutions in Stage 2, Stage 3 of the thesis framework sought to test proposed solutions. Given the scarcity of literature evaluating outcomes of school-based motor skill interventions on children’s motor proficiency and academic performance, an exploratory pilot study was conducted alongside a school-based participatory action project, to investigate whether Year 1 children exposed to a 12-week classroom-based gross motor program progressed differently to Year 1 children undertaking their regular school program in motor proficiency, mathematics and reading outcomes (Study 4, Chapter 7). Fifty-five Year 1 school children in Australia (25 boys, 30 girls, mean age = 6.77 ± 0.40 years) were exposed to either (i) their normal school program or (ii) a 12-week program comprised of gross motor circuits and physically active: a) reading lessons or b) mathematics lessons. The program was designed and delivered by a registered physiotherapist, with assistance from physiotherapy and exercise science university students. The Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency – 2nd Edition and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test – 2nd Edition – Australian Standardised Edition were used to assess motor proficiency and academic performance in mathematics and reading, respectively. Findings revealed mean change scores for the mathematics composite were significantly greater for participants exposed to active reading lessons (9.61 ± 5.62, p = .001) and active mathematics lessons (7.57 ± 5.79, p = .019) than for participants undertaking their normal Year 1 school program (0.76 ± 8.00). Mean change scores for reading (11.54 ± 7.51, p = .017) and total motor composites (6.12 ± 5.07, p = .034) were also significantly greater for participants exposed to active mathematics lessons than those undertaking their regular school program (4.47 ± 3.50 and 0.82 ± 4.38 respectively). Overall,
participation in a 12-week classroom-based gross motor program, specifically a combination of gross motor circuit training and physically active mathematics lessons, was associated with improvements in motor proficiency and academic outcomes for Year 1 school children. The benefits and constraints of conducting this pilot evaluation under “real world” conditions, alongside a school-based participatory action project, were also acknowledged and discussed.

Overall findings from this doctoral program of research reveal that in Australia, Year 1 children’s motor proficiency, particularly fine motor integration, was positively associated with their mathematics and reading skills. Observation of Year 1 children’s existing levels of physical activity revealed they engaged in predominantly sedentary activities during school class time, thus implementing classroom-based physical activity was identified as a potential strategy to encourage children to be more active during class time. Participation in a 12-week classroom-based gross motor program, particularly a combination of gross motor circuit training and physically active mathematics lessons, was associated with improvements in motor proficiency and academic outcomes for a cohort of Year 1 school children in Australia. On this basis, early primary school classrooms in Australia may indeed be appropriate and feasible settings to implement physical activity, particularly motor skill programs, as a strategy to promote children’s motor proficiency and academic outcomes. However, multiple strategies need to be employed to support school staff to trial such programs. More rigorous outcome and process evaluations are required to confirm findings from the exploratory work conducted as part of this program of research. Collectively, the results from this doctoral program of research will inform educators, schools and caregivers about relationships between motor proficiency and academic outcomes, as well as the opportunities and barriers to providing physical activity, particularly motor skill programs, to children in the early years of school during class time. Findings also highlight a potential partnership that schools could forge with allied health professionals who are
qualified to assess and facilitate children’s motor proficiency and promote children’s health and wellbeing, as they may be able to support educators to implement these practices.
Date of Award13 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRob Orr (Supervisor), Nikki Milne (Supervisor) & Rodney Pope (Supervisor)

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