Current Research

Physical Activity an Cognition in Early Childhood (PACE)

Child Playground

There is growing evidence that we need sufficient physical activity for optimal brain development and functioning. So far, most research on physical activity and the brain has been conducted in school-age children or in adults, with relatively few studies conducted in young children, even though early childhood is a period of rapid brain development. Also, while we often assume that young children are highly active, currently many young children spend a large proportion of their waking hours in sedentary activities (e.g., watching television, playing video games). To understand how this affects cognitive and brain development, we are conducting the PACE study in collaboration with Valerie Carson in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, to examine development between 2.5 and 6 years. This study includes objective measures of physical activity and age-appropriate measures of cognitive and brain development (using event-related potentials or ERPs) at three time-points spread out over one year. This study results will help inform public policy and practice to optimize children’s healthy development at both physical and neurocognitive levels.

Study Coordinator: Aishah Abdul Rahman

Brain Development and Cognitive Flexibility in Early Childhood

ERP child

Executive functions are the set of cognitive skills that underpin conscious, goal-directed behavior. They develop rapidly during the preschool years, and are known to predict children’s school readiness and later academic achievement. The preschool period is an exciting time in development as there are significant improvements in children’s ability to control and regulate their behavior, particularly when they need to flexibly “switch gears”. However, little research has examined whether these behavioural improvements are underpinned by changes in the brain. One way we can examine this is through event-related potentials (ERPs). In this technique, electrode sensors record small changes in voltage on the scalp related to underlying neural activity while children complete a cognitive task. We recently finished data collection for a study in which 2.5 to 4.5-year-old children wore special caps containing 128 recording sensors while they played a special computer game requiring them to switch flexibly between focusing on a picture’s colour or shape. Children also completed games requiring them to hold information in mind and focus their attention. By comparing the ERPs of children of different ages, this will help us to better understand how conscious, goal directed behavior emerges and develops in young children.

Executive Function in the Transition to School

Child School

Executive functions collectively refer to the mental processes that enable people to guide their behaviour in service of a goal, for example, holding information in mind for short periods of time, shutting out distractions, and changing strategies adaptively. As children transition from preschool to school-age, their executive functions improve, but there may also be changes in the structure of these abilities, or how different executive functions relate to each other. However, so far evidence for structural change comes from different researchers using cognitive tasks and different samples of children. In this study, we are studying executive function development in the transition to school using measures that are appropriate for the entire age range, and the sample includes children ranging in age from preschool to school-age. Each child visits the lab twice, separated by about a year, and complete a set of game-like executive function tasks, and parents complete questionnaires about other factors that might be related to executive function (e.g., children’s temperament, home environment), and outcome measures linked to executive function (e.g., basic math and reading skills). We have data collection for this study and are currently analyzing the data to assess if and how the structure of executive function changes across this key transition, as well as how it relates to children’s experiences and outcomes.

Study Coordinator: Daphne Vrantsidis