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Toddlers: Large muscle development affects cognition

Toddlers: Large muscle development affects cognition

On any given morning, students at The Summit Country Day School can be found pushing a wheelbarrow full of toys, crawling through a tube, sitting with a friend in a small rocking boat or jumping on a miniature trampoline. Every one of these actions serves a purpose and each piece of equipment has been intentionally designed to maximize development of gross motor skills. When toddlers are moving, they are not only developing coordination but also developing cognitive skills.

In every toddler classroom at The Summit, Montessori Director Kathy Scott ensured the placement of equipment designed for development of gross motor muscles. Classroom redesigns during the summer of 2017 integrated this equipment just in time for the inaugural enrollment of 18-month-olds.  “A muscle space for toddlers within the classroom allows teachers to follow the child, educating the whole child, teaching students the way Maria Montessori intended. Children are able to attend to their own needs by having the area accessible when the child feels the need to move in a free way,” Mrs. Scott says.

While the connection between movement of large muscle groups and cognitive development has appeared in research for years, researchers are beginning to understand more specific benefits. The cerebellum is an area of the brain most associated with motor control, but also contains almost half of the brain’s neurons, most of which have outbound pathways, according to a study by Peter Strick at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Syracuse, NY. Those pathways travel to other learning-centered areas, connecting the processes of movement and learning. (If you find the topic fascinating, you might want to read the New York Times article “Theory on human brain hints how its unique traits arose” about Dr. Strick’s work.) 

Maria Montessori, an educator, physician and inventor, believed that the will of a child realizes itself through movement. She asserted that educators should assist a child in attempts to put this will into action. Muscle equipment addresses both movement-based learning, but also the cognitive development, with materials that require a student to be physically active while still using their mind to complete the activity.

“Early childhood professionals appreciate the dual classroom,” Mrs. Scott says. “Blood flow in the brain supports cognitive development while teachers can observe the students’ development of gross motor skills. Research demonstrates the relationship between movement and cognitive ability.” Read the “Movement and Learning” chapter of Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen.

At The Summit, toddler teachers have noticed a significant improvement in academic focus and motor development since the introduction of designated muscle equipment. Toddlers have a variety of equipment to use as a physical outlet for energy, which makes it easier to focus when they move into the academic areas of the classrooms. The muscle equipment meets the developmental needs of the toddler, says Amie Adkins, toddler lead teacher. “They need to move and within the muscle area, they are able to develop coordination and balance, integrate their senses and strengthen their muscles,” she says.

Not only is there an effect on cognitive abilities, but there is also the benefit of beginning to work on social-emotional development along with problem-solving skills. For example, if two students want to use the same piece of equipment, they must work it out while beginning to learn patience, grace, courtesy and compromise. Occasionally they discover some materials can be used in more than one way, demonstrating emerging problem-solving skills. “Students are able to explore their abilities, instead of saying ‘I can’t do it,’” says Lysa Hou, toddler lead teacher. “It’s age appropriate for toddlers to need movement to learn. They need space to work things out, which develops space and organization in their brains.”

Additional resources for parents


Leah Fightmaster Costello is the digital media specialist at The Summit Country Day School. As a former reporter, she covered local schools in the Cincinnati area.