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History of motor competence research

This is an excerpt from Motor Learning and Development-3rd Edition With HKPropel Access by Pamela S. Beach,Ali Brian,Melanie Perreault,Douglas H. Collier & Gregory D. Reed.

The history of the fields of motor behavior began several hundred years ago and has evolved to the multidisciplinary approach of today. The interest in assessing motor competence can be traced back even further to 800 BCE with assessments of Spartans’ fitness for citizenship (Van Dalen and Bennett, 1971). Examining motor competence highlights a variety of mechanisms, including biological (i.e., growth, maturation, reflexes), social (e.g., parents, culture, practitioners), and environmental (e.g., home, community, schools) factors that influence functional and healthy lifestyles. To best understand the origins of motor competence assessments, we must follow the four periods: the precursor period, the maturational period, the normative period, and the process-oriented period (Clark and Whitall, 1989) (see table 1.3).

Table 1.3 Periods in the Evolution of the Field of Motor Development

Precursor Period

Motor competence research has its roots in the precursor period, beginning in the late 18th century. During this time, the main method for studying motor development was through descriptive observations, with the focus on the product, or outcome of development. It was also during the precursor period that Charles Darwin developed one of the main arguments for understanding the processes of motor development—the nature-versus-nurture debate. The perspective that development occurs as a function of nature assumes that maturation occurs because of genetic or internal factors (Gesell, 1928, 1954). This view, known as the maturational perspective, became quite popular in the 1930s during the maturational period. The environmentalism perspective assumes the converse: It is not heredity that molds the maturational process; rather, humans are nurtured by their environment. This argument ensued for many decades and continues to some degree even today. Charles Darwin did not believe that nature or nurture favors one developmental process over another. Instead, the environment (nurture) and genetic factors (nature) interact. Maturationists assume that a child born with the underlying abilities to excel at certain sports will eventually exhibit excellence in those sports. However, environmentalists propose that even basic skills must be developed through interaction with the environment. According to environmentalists, either individuals who are not given the appropriate equipment or environment to learn such skills will be delayed in developing them, or the skills will never materialize. Research has found high genetic contributions to development in twins who were either raised with (Williams and Gross, 1980) or apart from their family (Fox et al., 1996). Although there is research to support the high genetic component, there are also many environmental influences that affect motor development as well (Sasaki and Kim, 2017).

Charles Darwin’s work was seminal in the study of motor behavior. It provided insights into the effect of the environment on the animal. Darwin theorized about how animals adapt to changing environments and discussed developmental sequences found across species (Darwin, 1859, 1871, 1872). He also wrote about the importance of studying both the product of the behavior and the process.

Maturational Period

A boom in motor development studies occurred in the 1930s following the emergence of the field of developmental psychology. As the name of this period implies, the focus was on maturation. Arnold Gesell led the maturationist movement, asserting that infant maturity is genetically predetermined, meaning that the infant moves from one developmental cycle to the next under the control of the central nervous system (composed of the brain and the spinal cord). Each cycle occurs in a very orderly and predetermined fashion; for example, infants roll over at around five months, sit up at six months, and stand at eight months. Maturationists assume that these transitions are set and controlled by nature. Children progress to the next step when they are ready. External influences are not included in these transitions; an internal clock, so to speak, simply determines precisely when the infant will progress. More recent research has shown that the environment can certainly influence the onset of these transitions. For instance, a child who never lies on his belly will crawl much later than a child who receives regular belly time (Mendres-Smith et al., 2020). The no-belly-time child’s environment has delayed this transition because the infant was not given the opportunity to strengthen the arm, leg, and core muscles necessary for crawling. Children who are blind have been found to be significantly delayed in reaching many milestones (Elisa et al., 2002), such as manipulative and locomotor skills (Wagner et al., 2013) as well as stability skills (Haibach et al., 2011). It is doubtful that the delay is genetically predetermined. Rather, it is more likely that the delay results from the lack of visual stimuli that would motivate them to reach objects of interest as well as help them to replicate actions that their peers are doing.

Esther Thelen and colleagues’ research on the infant stepping reflex and walking was seminal in this area. According to the maturation perspective, infants do not walk following the disappearance of the stepping reflex because neuronal paths need to first mature. The persistence of the stepping reflex in some infants had been viewed as an indication of a developmental delay. Thelen examined the effects of body build and arousal on infant stepping and found that the disappearance of the stepping reflex was due to increased body mass in proportion to strength (Thelen et al., 1982). Infants decrease their number of steps simply because they do not have the muscle strength to lift their heavy legs.

Growth occurs in a cephalocaudal direction, meaning that the head develops first and distal structures grow more slowly. Essentially, growth occurs from the head to the foot. An infant can control movements of the head much earlier than movements of the trunk or limbs. For instance, the eyes and mouth develop earlier than the hands and feet. Controlled eye movements can be seen postnatally at very early ages. On a personal note, one of the authors of this book was surprised to see that immediately following birth, her firstborn child was able to track his mother’s eye movements. He would lie peacefully when eye contact was maintained but would scream when eye contact was removed, even for just a moment. With respect to his vision, he was not only alert but also very aware of his surroundings. It was also quite clear that although he was able to control his eye movements, it would be quite some time before he could control his head, neck, trunk, and limb movements.

While growth is occurring in a cephalocaudal direction, it is concurrently developing in a proximodistal direction; as the body is growing from head to foot, the trunk is advancing at a faster rate than the limbs. This can be examined in the prehension, or grasping, stages in infants. Initially, infants attempt to grasp an object with the whole palm. As they mature, they begin to use three fingers and then finally add the thumb and forefinger.

A secondary focus during the maturational period was on motor learning (McGraw, 1935). McGraw explained that “maturation and learning are not different processes, merely different facets of the fundamental process of growth” (McGraw, 1945/1969, pp. 130-131). Comparing the development of twins in a study in which one twin was taught motor skills and the other merely matured, McGraw found not only that the environment has a strong influence on motor development but also that there appear to be critical periods in which improvement can be optimized through advanced opportunities and instruction (McGraw, 1935, 1940).

Normative Period

Following World War II, the study of motor behavior was largely influenced by several physical educators, with a focus on movement skills in school-age children. The focus was less on cognitive development and more on the physical aspects of development, which caused a shift from process- to product-oriented research. Physical educators and researchers were also interested in anthropometric measures (growth measures) through childhood and the role of maturation and strength changes in children (Clark and Whitall, 1989, p. 189). Part of this shift was due to physical educators’ interests at the time. They wanted to improve motor skill instruction through understanding changes in motor performance (Halverson, 1970). Motor learning researchers focused on the processes underlying performance changes when new simple motor skills are learned and on the evaluation of such performances. Unfortunately, it was not until the 1980s that motor developmentalists and motor learning and control researchers began appreciating the value of each other’s work (Clark and Whitall, 1989).

Process-Oriented Period

A reemergence of motor behavior research occurred in the early 1970s as psychologists developed a renewed interest in the field and much study focused on hypothesis-driven research. During this period, three theoretical constructs emerged, each of which is still prominent today: the information-processing theory, the ecological approach, and the dynamic systems approach. It is important to have a basic understanding of the theories that drive research in motor development and motor learning to understand and interpret experimental findings in these fields. These theories are discussed in chapter 2 and are the theoretical basis for this book.

What Do You Think?

Exercise 1.6

Think about your own family. Perhaps you have a large family with many siblings; maybe you are an only child; or maybe you were adopted. From a personal perspective, discuss how you believe your genetics and environment (parents and family) affected your motor development. From these personal experiences, do you lean more toward nature or nurture? Explain your response.