Children Should Swim to Boost Their Vocabulary

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Children Should Swim to Boost Their Vocabulary

 Jim Windell

            With the 2021 summer Olympic games comes a renewed international focus on swimming and the feats of American swimmers such as Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel. The American swimmers, along with standout swimmers from Australia and other countries, are likely to provide inspiration to children everywhere to take up the sport.

           While there is absolutely no doubt that swimming is a wonderful exercise, are there any other benefits that accrue from swimming? Besides trying to encourage children to begin training to be the next Olympic swimming superstar, is there another reason for taking the kids to the local pool?

           According to research from the University of Delaware and recently published in the Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, it turns out there is. Swimming laps in a pool may not transform your kid into Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps, but it might help them become another Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. The study says that swimming can boost kids’ vocabulary growth.

           In the study, children ages 6 to 12 were taught new words before doing one of three things – swimming, taking part in CrossFit exercises or completing a coloring sheet. The results showed that the kids who swam were 13% more accurate in follow up tests of the vocabulary words.

           Lead researcher, Maddy Pruitt, herself a former college swimmer who now regularly takes CrossFit classes, indicates that the study results make sense. “Motor movement helps in encoding new words," she said, explaining that exercise is known to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein Pruitt describes as the “Miracle-Gro of the brain.”

           But why does swimming make a difference in the encoding of new words while CrossFit doesn’t?

           Pruitt attributes this difference to the amount of energy each exercise demands of the brain. Swimming is an activity the kids could complete without much thought or instruction, she says. Swimming was more automatic, while the CrossFit exercises were new to them. The children needed to learn the moves, which required mental energy.

           As a speech pathologist, Pruitt says she is incorporating the findings of this study in her work with children. “My sessions are very rarely at a table,” she says. “I'll take my kids out to the playground or we'll take a walk around the school.”

           Coauthor Giovanna Morini, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Delaware, said most research into exercise examines it from the angle of a healthy lifestyle and not much enters the domain of language acquisition. Morini says she sees this as a rich line of inquiry and that a further study involves running a similar experiment with toddlers.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Madison Pruitt, Giovanna Morini. (2021). Examining the Role of Physical Activity on Word Learning in School-Aged Children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 64 (5): 1712 DOI: 10.1044/2021_JSLHR-20-00359

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