Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Physical and Cognitive Development: Not as Distinct as Once Thought

When you consider some factors that might influence your child's cognitive development, you probably think of things like exposure to language or how many books that you have read to her. What you might not think of are factors like her ability to track you with her eyes or reach and stack up blocks. In the field of child development, we have long considered cognitive development as a separate area from physical or motor development. What new research is showing us, however, is that these areas of development are more linked that we might have thought.


If you are a parent of an infant, you know they use their whole bodies to learn about the world. As newborns, they use what limited sight they have to distinguish their mother's face. As they grow, they learn to explore with their hands, tongues and even toes. Consider, then, how much more a baby is learning about her world, if her motor skills are better? If she is allowed to lay on the floor and explore whatever she can reach, as opposed to spending hours a day in a carseat or stroller, she will gradually learn more about how her body moves. All this learning is really both motor and cognitive in nature.

Early Childhood

One of the main learning tasks of early childhood is learning to read. We have always considered this a mostly cognitive task. New research, however, is also showing some links to motor development as well. One group of researchers found that in predicting elementary reading, math, and science scores that in addition to (1) attention and (2) general knowledge, that (3) fine motor skills was the other significant predictive factor.

Further studies have also shown a link between academic performance and motor skills. In a Finnish study, children who performed worse on motor skills such as agility, speed and manual dexterity tended to have lower reading and math scores.

Moving and Learning

Interestingly, this link between cognition and motors skills is coming up in another line of research as well. More and more studies are finding that kids who are more physically active tend to do better academically as well. A recent Pediatrics study showed that kids (ages 7-9) who played physically (e.g., tag, jump rope, etc) for at least 70 minutes a day performed better on cognitive task such as multi-tasking.

Ultimately, what all this research seems to be indicating is that the physical and cognitive aspects of our development are not altogether distinct. It's really not surprising when you think about it: what your body is doing inherently affects how you are learning and how well your brain is functioning.

This line of research is coming more into the mainstream and an increasing number of schools and parents are beginning to see the mind-body connection. Although nationwide, we hear of a decline in the time spent in recess, there are many schools that are also incorporating movement programs into their regular curriculum, even within the classroom. It seems from the information we have now, that one one of the best things you can do for your child's overall development (both physical and cognitive) is to simply let them play and move.

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