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UMass study aims to help young, low-income children find joy in exercise

A playground across from Sumner Avenue Elementary School in Springfield, Mass.
Elizabeth Román
A playground across from Sumner Avenue Elementary School in Springfield, Mass.

A University of Massachusetts Amherst exercise scientist wants to train preschool teachers to offer young children more physical activity so they can learn exercise skills.

The early days of COVID-19 reduced the amount of exercise children got because many families felt safer staying in their homes.

UMass professor of kinesiology Sofiya Alhassan said, on average, low-income children are already more sedentary because of less access to indoor or outdoor play spaces - including at childcare centers.

“So the teachers have to be very creative in providing space within the classroom environment for the kids to be physically active,” Alhassan said.

“Now imagine having 20 kids in a preschool classroom and trying to get them to run around or to jump around or to leap or to skip around or to even hit a baseball or or anything like that," she said.

 UMass Amherst exercise scientist Sofiya Alhassan.
UMass Amherst
UMass Amherst exercise scientist Sofiya Alhassan.

Alhassan's lab's federally-funded pilot study will train teachers at four preschools in Springfield, Wilbraham and Amherst to work around space limitations.

She said teaching children gross motor skills may also help their cognitive development.

“The areas of the brain that handles motor movement, gross motor skills, are also the same areas of the brain that handles things like inhibitory control and also early cognition and executive function,” she said.

While Alhassan said getting more exercise can help with obesity, she’s more interested in helping children find joy in physical activity regardless of their weight.

“Most of us learn gross motor skills as we age, in elementary school, when we get to our PE teachers later on,” she said. “But the theory is, if we can get kids to participate in the gross motor skills earlier, they're more likely to enjoy being physically active.”

In future studies, Alhassan hopes to expand into more preschools and follow children over time to watch the impact of early physical activity.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.