Cognitive benefits of a specialist-led pe intervention in primary schools
The importance of specialist physical education (PE) teachers in primary schools has been advocated in several countries along more than an half century, supported by research on physical and mental health outcomes of enhanced physical activity (PA) (Tomporowski et al., 2008; Zenzen & Kridli, 2009). In Italy, however, we continue to lack valid and reliable research on intervention outcomes to inform policy development.
The aim of this study was to verify whether (1) the unique relation between aerobic fitness and the efficiency of higher-level cognitive functions, the executive (Hillman et al., 2005) also emerges in ecological research in the primary school context; and (2) a specialist-led PE intervention focused on a cognitively demanding open skills sport (tennis) may be especially beneficial to cognitive functioning particularly of children who are low-fit because less involved in PA in out of school settings.
Fifty-eight children aged 9-10 yrs. were assigned either to a five-months intervention of enhanced PE focused on tennis and led by specialist teachers or to the normal generalist-led PE. Before and at the end of the intervention, they were administered the Random Number Generation (RNG) test, tapping executive functions, and the Leger shuttle run test, providing an estimate of aerobic fitness. Indices of inhibition, belonging to the executive functions, were computed from RNG data (Turning Point Index, Adjacency combined, and Runs) and submitted to separate ANOVAs. (1) To assess fitness effects on inhibitory function, we evaluated the impact of pre-to-post intervention gradient in fitness level on post-intervention measures of inhibition. (2) To assess potential benefits of practicing cognitively challenging sports activities taught by specialist teachers, we evaluated pre-to-post intervention differences in specialist-led and generalist-led children also considering their baseline fitness level at pre-test.
Children who had larger gains in aerobic fitness over the intervention time showed better executive performances at post-test. A specific improvement of executive performance from pre- to post-test emerged only in children belonging to the specialist-led classes and starting the intervention with low fitness levels.
The results reported in Figures 1a-b confirm the predictive value of physical fitness for children’s executive performance reported from cross-sectional studies in laboratory settings (e.g., Hillman et al., 2005), strengthening the causal relationship by means of an intervention study in an ecological learning context. The results reported in Figures 2a-b suggest that specialist-led PE including sports activities characterized by demands on cognitive flexibility is selectively beneficial to executive functioning of children who enter enhanced PE interventions with a relatively low aerobic fitness level. This encourages to promote specialist-led primary PE for supporting the joint development of physical and mental health and calls for further research with cognitively challenged children.
Hillman, C.H., Castelli, D.M., Buck, S.M. (2005). Aerobic fitness and neurocognitive function in healthy preadolescent children. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 37, 1967-78
Tomporowski, P.D., Davis, C.L., Miller, P.H. & Naglieri, J.A. (2008). Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic performance. Educational Psychology Review, 20, 111-131.
Zenzen, W. and Kridli, S. (2009) ‚Integrative review of school-based childhood obesity prevention programs’, Journal of Pediatric Health Care 23: 242-258.