Academic journal article Physical Educator

Studying Environmental Influence on Motor Development in Children

Academic journal article Physical Educator

Studying Environmental Influence on Motor Development in Children

Article excerpt


There is a good argument that in order to truly understand the influences that shape child motor development, one must consider environmental influences that reflect the multilevel ecological contexts that interact with the changing biological characteristics of the child. Although there are theories typically associated with motor development that mention environmental influence (e.g., constraints, affordances), none provide the comprehensive fiamework comparable to the works of Bronfenbrenner (1979, 2005). With this paper, we address the need for environmental considerations, highlight Bronfenbrenner's work and application to the field of motor development, and provide examples for research using two contemporary themes.


Over the last 25 years, there has been a substantial increase in the presence of motor development research in top-tier journals of human development, psychology and neuroscience. This trend is due in large part to acknowledgement that level of motor development is a critical factor in child behavior. Additional evidence for this emergence is the observation that aspects of motor development are mentioned with increasing frequency in broad-based theoretical treatises within the fields of cognitive psychology, developmental neuropsychology, developmental psychobiology, and neuroscience (e.g., Andres, Olivier, & Badets, 2008; Fernandino & Iacoboni, 2010; Johnson, Spencer, & Schoner, 2008; Pick, Dawson, Leigh, & Smith, 2008). Contemporary research has answered numerous questions concerning how the body learns and controls movement, and what effects movement has on human development (e.g., physical growth, muscle, bone, cardiorespiratory system, and cognitive ability).

Although some mention in prominent theories of motor development is given to environmental factors, to a much greater extent, focus has been on the biological determinants of behavior, with the goal of gaining an understanding of the processes that underscore the dynamic and self-organizing properties associated with perception and action. However, few researchers would disagree with the notion that in order to truly understand the complex nature of human motor development, environmental determinants should be considered. This aspect of study represents the primary intent of this paper. Here, we will briefly address the need for environmental considerations, suggest a framework for study, and provide examples for research using two contemporary themes.

According to Lerner (2002), human development is the product of changing relations between the developing person and his or her changing multilevel environmental contexts. Understanding how biological levels dynamically interact with levels of contexts (aka, contextualism) stresses the interrelation of all levels. Complementing this general view of development, Gabbard (2008) defines motor development as the study of change in motor behavior [and underlying processes] as influenced by biological and environmental factors; that is, the interaction of changing biological systems and environmental contexts.

The importance of considering the environment in the study of motor development was emphasized in several works of Thelen; for example, "The first assumption of the dynamic approach is that developing organisms are complex systems composed of very many individual elements embedded within, and open to, a complex environment" (Smith & Thelen, 2003, p. 343), and "... the coherence [of perception and action] is generated solely in the relationships between the organic components and the constraints and opportunities of the environment" (p. 344). In 2000, the National Academies addressed the issue of environmental effect by noting "Research indicates that early relationships are especially critical and that cultural values and practices provide the context for these bonds" (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). …

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