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Cognitive Development

From PEKN 1P93 Winter 2014: Group 11: Cognitive Development, Brain Development

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[edit] Background

Brain development refers to the processes that generate and shapes the nervous system, set in motion from the early stages of embryogenesis to throughout an individual's life span. Brain development spans from its physical features, such as the lobes, to the active chemicals within the lobes to how each lobe shapes who we are as individuals. Brain development and its link to physical activity is a topic that has been discussed to a greater extent today than in previous years because we are more aware of our health due to technological development. Physical activity is essential and beneficial for brain development because exercise increases the parts of the brain in shape and size, such as the hippocampus does when regular exercise is met. The role of the hippocampus is to regulate memory, this in turn aids in the improvement of memory tasks and enhances academic performance. Daily physical activity as a young child can improve learning capabilities, strengthening the process of cognitive development, and can also reduce the risk of memory-related brain disorder and neurodegenerative diseases that can develop later in life. The purpose of advancing our way of thinking and expanding our knowledge of the human brain is for the purpose of developing advantageous minds in the future who can help further society and be valuable citizens.

[edit] History

The History of cognitive development starts within the brain, specifically the Brain Lobes. The four Brain lobes are the Frontal Lobe, Parietal Lobe, Occipital Lobe and Temporal Lobe. Interestingly, each lobe assists in cognitive development differently. The Frontal Lobe focuses on cognitive activities, which can be planning, decision making, goal setting, and relating the present to the future. The Parietal Lobe provides attention to the sensory processes such as, spatial interpretation, attention and language comprehension. The Occipital Lobe is important as it processes visual information and passes its conclusion to the parietal and temporal lobes. The Temporal Lobe can receive information from both the Occipital Lobe as well as the Parietal as it assists in auditory perception, language comprehension and visual recognition. (Kellington, 2009). From the brain lobes come chemicals that are created when an individual is physically active.

An interesting study shows that through physical activity the brain restores a chemical, which promotes production of new stem cells. The hippocampus plays an important role in memory and learning, which also creates the new chemical. Although children’ stem cell growth is healthy it is important a child participates in physical activity daily to keep them beneficial (American Physiological Society, 2008). This plays a close role with Neurotransmitters, which are substances that are released at the end of a nerve fiber when a nerve impulse arrives, which diffuses across a synapse (Cooper, 2007). Acetylcholine is a Neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to regulate movement, arousal, sleep, cognition and reward. It is important that children have a proper diet to keep their neurotransmitters healthy, and to not lack important substances needed. Common deficiencies are Protein, Vitamin D, low levels of Cadmium and Iron; these are crucial for a child to properly develop cognitively (Cooper, 2007).

Throughout history there have been different opinions and definitions for the word development. One way to look at it is that “The idea of development is used extensively to give order and meaning to changes over time in children's physical, cognitive, psychosocial, and moral development” (Cahan, 2008). John Dewey a distinguished philosophical psychologist rejected development as a natural progress and instead suggested that children develop through life experiences, education, and growth. He believes that children are able to cognitively develop through physical activity and also from their own experiences (Cahan, 2008). This leads us to Piagets 4 stages of cognitive development. Theses stages are Sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Focusing on the first two stages will help better understand children’s cognitive development. The sensorimotor stage (infancy) is where the child physically is beginning to develop new intellectual abilities. Where they learn through motor activity without using symbols. The second stage is pre-operational stage (toddler and Early childhood) where the child demonstrates intelligences through symbols and memory as their language matures. Children at this stage are developing imagination and are able to create games and activities based off of that (Huitt & Hummel, 2003).

[edit] Target Audience

Horseback riding is a fun and educational way to be physically active.Photo taken by Jessica Cieri
Horseback riding is a fun and educational way to be physically active.Photo taken by Jessica Cieri

The target audiences we are going to focus on are adolescent children, both males and females, between the ages of 6 and 10 years old. During this age, brain development is critical because children are in the concrete-operation stage of cognitive development. At this stage of development, the brain is developing based on the experiences and previous expertise that is continuing to be modified to advance the sensory and motor skills. As the brain continues to grow physically and continues create neural pathways, the adolescents are increasingly aware of peripheral events. At the age of 10, the brain goes through a significant increase in cognitive development by neuronal arborization which creates more contacts and associations between earlier networks (Epstein, 2001). The adolescent is becoming sociocentric; hence they begin having their own views and realize that not all individuals share the same opinions as they do. They are then able to focus on multiple parts of a problem at once, associating conservation plus other intellectual activities (Rathus, 2008). Besides, being physically active can be both fun and educational at the same time.

[edit] Research

The link between physical activity and cognitive development has been a popular research topic for many years, and findings have been very similar over the years. Studies done by Bjorklund and Brown (1998) and Burdette and Whitaker (2004) both emphasize the importance of physical activity at a young age and agree that play is the main contributor to being physically active.

Bjorklund and Brown (1998) focus on the relationship between play with Elementary School age children and how recess is an important aspect of their cognitive development. It was suggested that social and cognitive development are strongly linked to one’s physical development. Not only did Bjorklund and Brown (1998) focus on physical play with children, gender differences and the effects of play on their development was also considered. It was found that boys tend to develop their parietal lobe more quickly than girls because of the common activities they participate in such as ball games (which require hand-eye coordination). Girls on the other hand were found to typically take part in activities that require greater creativity and strategy which develops the frontal lobe.

Similar to the Bjorklund and Brown (1998) study, Burdette and Whitaker (2004) discuss the important role play has on the development of children on a mental level, rather than its physical benefits. The article Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect (Resurrecting Free Play) (Burdette & Whitaker, 2004) states that over the years, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of play being done by children which was found to have a greater health impact than just physical health. By bringing play back and encouraging children to be physically active at a young age demonstrates many beneficial aspects, especially during important developmental stages. Play encourages the children to be creative, use strategy and problem solving, and learn how to communicate with others. These benefits of play help to develop every lobe of the brain.

In 2008, Tomporowski, Davis, Miller, and Naglieri looked at the development of the brain at a more scientific level. Animals were used to demonstrate changes in neurological development that has been linked with physical activity. Tomporowski et al. (2008) concluded that different forms of physical activities affects different parts of the brain and therefore it is most important for children to be exposed to different types of activities to aid in the development of the entire brain.

Expanding on the work done by Tomporowski et al. (2008), Chaddock, Pontifex, Hillman, and Kramer (2011) focused on determining what type of activity affects which part of the brain. Chaddock and colleagues (2011) explain the link between aerobic exercise and physical activity on higher levels cognition among children. Tomporowski et al. (2008), and Chaddock et al. (2011) both agree that increasing the amount of physical activity in children can improve overall brain function and result in better academics.

A more recent study done by Halperin, Bédard, and Lichtin-Curchack (2012) focusses on using physical activity to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, and ultimately prevent attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). BDNF are proteins in the hippocampus and cortex of the brain which is vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking. Halperin et al. (2012) noted that by increasing physical activity when young, will increase the BDNF levels in the prefrontal cortex which is highly related to ADHD.

As many research studies have shown, physical activity at a young age is extremely influential in the development of the brain because that is when most of your growth occurs. By the age of two, the human brain reaches approximately 80% of its adult size and changes very slightly after five years of age (Halperin et al. 2012) which explains the emphasized importance on physical activity and play for young children (Burdette & Whitaker, 2004). Exercise may be the most important, yet simple and fun method enhancing children’s cognitive development by developing the brain normally (Tomporowski et al. 2008).

[edit] Existing Physical Activity Programs

Local communities host competitions for equestrians of all ages. Photo taken by Jessica Cieri
Local communities host competitions for equestrians of all ages. Photo taken by Jessica Cieri
Gymnastics clubs promote fundamental fitness skills for all ages to help improve physical and mental fitness.Photo taken by Marina Rose.
Gymnastics clubs promote fundamental fitness skills for all ages to help improve physical and mental fitness.Photo taken by Marina Rose.

There are many programs in the world that encourage physical activity and fitness in children, (in school with the physical education, encouraging children to be physically active for at least 20 minutes every day. Also, in schools the recess times that are given to the children give them “play time”, which is important to their cognitive development.) One other example are the recreational sports clubs in regions, encouraging children to play and advance their skills in a sport getting many benefits such as social and cognitive development.

Ontario after School is part of a national program that promotes after school programs and increases access and opportunity for young children. The benefits of this program are to develop; cognitive thinking, emotional well-being, social skills and physical health. The website shares information with parents about after school programs that they can get involved with and explains the benefits of such programs. The programs are divided into four main categories; emerging, established, established and evidence-based, and funding stream. This division makes it easier for parents to browse and find the right program for their children.

Boys and Girls Club of Niagara is a community program that works with families and volunteers to provide a safe and supportive place for children. Youth from all different types of backgrounds are invited to participate in different activities to overcome barriers, build new relationships, develop confidence, and develop life skills. Children are also encouraged to develop healthy lifestyles through adventure, play, and discovery. The club was one of the first to establish the High Five program which is designed to promote the safety and development of children from ages 6-12 in recreational programs. The Boys and Girls Club has locations all over Ontario which makes it accessible to many families. In addition to this the website provides an events calendar and a news page.

The YMCA offers many programs that focus on child and youth development. The programs enable children to “develop skills, clarify values, and learn self-responsibility.” Their website provides a complete list of all the year-round programs that are available. In addition to children activity programs the YMCA also provides family programs that promote parent-child time. This makes it possible for parents and their children to use the facility, and incorporate physical activity into their day at the same time.

Caring for Kids is a website directed at informing parents about how much physical activity their children should be receiving daily. It explains what being active means, and even includes the types of foods children should be eating. In addition to this the website divides activities into; moderate-intensity physical activities, vigorous-intensity physical activities, and activities that strengthen muscle and bone. Examples of activities are provided under each heading along with ways to increase physical activity, and how to reduce sedentary behavior. Links are provided on the site that promote physical activity, healthy eating, being smart with screens and getting enough sleep.

Scouts Canada is a national program that involves youth of all ages. The program provides opportunities for children to interact with each other, reach goals, help out in the community, and get physically active.

  • Beaver Scouts is for children from 5-7, and promotes cooperation, teamwork, and develops self-confidence. This is done through games, music, sports, and outdoor activities.
  • Cub Scouts is directed at children from ages 8-10, and promotes independence but also working as a team. The children are encouraged to venture outside of their comfort zones and try new things such as; canoeing, kayaking, and learning first aid skills.

The website provides helpful information on each program and how to get involved.

[edit] Best Practice Activity Suggestions

High ropes course is a great way to incorporate teamwork, communication, and a little fear.Photo taken by Marina Rose.
High ropes course is a great way to incorporate teamwork, communication, and a little fear.Photo taken by Marina Rose.

The most beneficial activities that help brain development include aerobic exercises such as running, jumping, skipping, and hopping because plenty of oxygen is being supplied to the neurons. Aerobic exercise has the ability to create new brain cells that aid in better recollection of memories. Short bursts of activity, such as playing tag, can help children improve their memory as well as generating new neurons by increasing blood flow. These fundamental skills can be transferred to team/group activities that also require strategy to involve more parts of the brain.

Other examples of activities the enhance brain development include:

  • Swimming is a good way to get physically active, but have fun at the same time. Most communities have a pool for the public to enjoy and offer programs for people of all ages. Studies have found that swimming helps with coordination and visual-motor development skills. In addition to this learn other skills such as counting and following directions.
  • Games and “play-time” are very important for cognitive development in children. In most schools children are encouraged to be physically active for at least 20 minutes every day. In addition this they receive a recess time which is when they can interact and play games with each other.
  • Gymnastics is the perfect way for children to learn about teamwork, sportsmanship, and dedication. In addition to this it can improve concentration and mental focus which is helpful in all areas of life. Gymnastics can help children think for themselves and stimulate creativity.
  • There are currently many team building activities such as low ropes courses and obstacle courses that involve speed, strategic planning, and effective communication which address the importance of both cognitive development and physical activity.
  • Dance is very useful to children because it allows them to express themselves non-verbally. The cognitive learning skills that children acquire through dancing can be carried over into the class room. Children will learn that there is more than one way to approach a problem

[edit] Future Directions

In 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Education put into effect policy/program memorandum No. 138 on daily physical activity in elementary schools, grades 1-8. The requirements of the policy is that school boards must ensure all elementary students, including students with special needs, have a minimum of twenty minutes of sustained moderate to vigorous physical activity each school day during instructional time. This may include walking, active games, dance, aquatics, sports, fitness and recreational activities. Their goal with this is to enable the students to improve or maintain their physical fitness and overall health and wellness, as well as to enhance their learning opportunities. Too add to this, there are many other opportunities for twenty minutes of physical activity, integrating it into other curriculum areas would be a suitable strategy. The activities must be adapted as appropriate to ensure a positive learning atmosphere for all students, including those with special needs.

Soccer is a fun and easy way to get children's heart racing and positively improve their social skills.Photo taken by Carly Antonucci.
Soccer is a fun and easy way to get children's heart racing and positively improve their social skills.Photo taken by Carly Antonucci.

For all the other curriculum subjects, there are evaluations that are made by the government to make sure that their policies are effective and enforce properly. Although, since this physical activity policy has been in effect, there have not been any follow up or evaluations of the effects that the physical activity has on the cognitive development and the overall health of the students. To ensure this policy is having positive effects on the students; they should implement an evaluation process for the physical education and health courses they are being taught, exploring if they should re-visit the policy specifications, perhaps adding or reducing the time necessary of physical activity, or specifying the types of activities to maximize their abilities in the future.

This policy has been in effect for eight years now, and the percentages of obesity in society is still rising, according to Statistics Canada. In 2012, the percentage of overweight or obese youth (12-17) was 21.8%, which has risen compared to 19.7% in 2009. On the other hand, overweight or obese adults in 2012 were at 52.5%, which rose from 51.1% in 2008. After considering these statistics, there is a much higher percentage in adults compared to the youth, one possibility for a future direction would be to teach children the importance of physical activity at a young age and teach them healthy habits that they can implement for the rest of their lives.

One approach to solving this inactive urgency, and to promote healthy living with physical activity could be to add more active programs that are easily accessible for adults and youth. Many programs offered as after school sports are very expensive, limiting access for families who have a minimum income and cannot afford to participate. The ideal situation would be to create more low-cost physical activity programs for those families, making it easier for the youth to be physically active.

[edit] External Links

Learn more on the policy/program the Ontario Ministry of Education has imputed in elementry schools. Ontario Ministry of Education

Examine the stats of obese/overweight individuals at Statistics Canada. Statistics Canada

Learn how exercise benefits the brain. Human Kinetics

Find out more about how swimming benefits the brain. Super Swimmers Foundation

Learn more on promoting healthy cognitive development in your children. The Children's Courtyard

Learn the benefits of gymnastics. Your Doc Medical

Find out more about how dance can benefit your overall health. Dance Brought 2 u

[edit] Notes and References

American Physiological Society. (2008). Exercise Increases Brain Growth Factor and Receptors. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from:

Bjorklund, D., & Brown, R. (1998). Physical play and cognitive development: Integrating activity, cognition, and education. Child Development. 69(3), 604.

Burdette, H., & Whitaker, R. (2004, July) Resurrecting free play in young children: Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives of pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 159(1): 46-50.

Cahan, E. (2008). Child Development, History of the Concept of. Retrieved From:

Chaddock, L., Pontifex, M., Hillman, C., & Kramer, A. (2011). A review of the relation of aerobic fitness and physical activity to brain structure and function in children. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 17(06), 975-985.

Cooper, J. (2007). The Biochemical Basis of Neuropharmacology. Oxford University Press. Retrieved From:

Epstein, H. T. (2001). An Outline of the role of brain in human cognitive development Brain and Cognition. 45:44-51. Reteived from

Halperin, J., Bédard, A., & Lichtin-Curchack, J. (2012). Preventive Interventions for ADHD: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective. Neurotherapeutics. 9(3): 531-541.

Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development. Educational Psychology interactive. Retrieved From:

Kellington, M. (2009). Brain Injury Rehabilitation center. Royal Adelaide Hospital. Retrieved from:

Rathus, S. A. (2008). Children and adolescence: Voyages in Development Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Tomporowski, P., Davis, C., Miller, P., & Naglieri, J. (2008). Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement. Educational Psychology Review. 20(2): 111-131.

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