Scholar Story: Leah Robinson, PhD

I want to use my research to inform educational and health policies that could affect the health and well-being of children across the U.S. and across their lifespan.

From a young age, Leah Robinson was a versatile athlete, playing basketball, volleyball, and track and field. Following her fascination with athleticism and what the human body can accomplish, Leah continued to play volleyball at North Carolina Central University, while studying physical education and biology. Through a research project, Leah discovered that her passion was in research that studied the movement of the human body.

“I loved discovering how to help the human body work and move more efficiently,” Leah says. The research led her to continue her education, earning her Masters and PhD in Exercise Science and Human Motor Behavior from Ohio State University.

While teaching at Bucks County Community College, outside of Philadelphia, after completing her Master degree Leah increasingly became interested in how preschool-aged children move. As a professor at Bucks County, she integrated the on-campus pre-school program with the courses she taught in the health and physical education department. “It was during this course when I first saw children struggling with basic movement skills—like running and jumping,” Leah says. In working with these children to encourage more proficient movement skills, Leah meshed her undergraduate training in physical education with her research interests in sports and movement to create a new research trajectory: investigating the design and implementation of evidence-based motor skill interventions and the effect of motor skills on promoting health-enhancing physical activity and developmental health in young children.

Currently, Leah is investigating the effects of a motor skill intervention, the Children’s Health Activity Motor Program (CHAMP, which she started as part of her dissertation work at Ohio State University)  and its impact on child health through two NIH-funded grants, which provide funds for longitudinal studies of nearly 300 pre-school-aged children. In the first study, Leah and her research team will examine how the motor-based interventions of CHAMP affect children’s motor skills and physical activity from pre-school through second grade—Leah and her team just finished collecting data for the first year of pre-school. In her second project, Leah and the team will examine the effect of the CHAMP intervention on self-regulation in children heading to kindergarten along with the link between these motor skills and self-regulation. Self-regulation—control over our thoughts, feeling, and actions—is a predictor of school readiness in children. Preliminary research Leah conducted with smaller samples showed that this motor-intervention promoted self-regulation skills, such as listening to the teacher and controlling impulses. Children who did not receive the intervention saw a decrease in their self-regulation skills over 10-12 weeks.

“We need to investigate this further over a longer duration and with more extensive measures of self-regulations, because it’s crucial that children are prepared and ready to learn in kindergarten,” Leah notes. The team is also interested in learning whether the intervention can improve learning-based outcomes, such as children’s attention and self-perceptions.

“Early results have shown that this intervention is effective in promoting physical activity and positive self-perceptions in preschoolers, which are two key factors that we want children to develop early and maintain throughout their lives,” Leah explains.

The link between physical activity and school outcomes is a key component of Leah’s future research agenda. Children today are encouraged to participate in more sedentary activities, so this often means they spend less time playing and learning motor skills or engaging in physical activity. One study in the UK found that children spent half as much time playing outside as their parents did.

“Play appears to be disappearing from childhood and it needs to return,” Leah says. “I’m interested in learning more about the effect that decreasing outdoor playtime has on children. Why aren’t they playing outside? This lack of play could impact how children learn to socialize and interact with peers. We need to explore this further.”

At the same time, physical education programs in public schools also have been cut. In a 2012 study of San Francisco, only 20 percent of schools met the state requirements for physical activity, which, in California, is 20 minutes a day—a pattern seen across primary and secondary schools throughout the U.S.

“I want to stress the importance of movement in young populations, especially with physical education programs disappearing and reduced amounts of time dedicated to play (outdoor recess) in public schools,” Leah adds. “I want to use my research to inform educational and health policies that could affect the health and wellbeing of children across the U.S. and across their lifespan.”

Looking back, Leah says the New Connections grant, which she received in 2011, was influential in shaping her career, particularly in terms of understanding how educational and health policies can influence and shape an individual’s experiences to become an agent of change. She also stays in contact with friends from her cohort and says the connections formed within the program are powerful, which is why she continues to volunteer as a mentor and speaker for the program’s many professional development events.

“My New Connections friends and I have formed social media groups where we stay in contact and disseminate information,” she says. “You always meet people at universities and conventions who know one another from the program. Whether they are from your cohort or another, you will meet a New Connections fellow and it’s great to know that we have this bond as part of a larger group.”

These bonds are important in creating support for minority and early career researchers, she says. “I am a big advocate of the program, and I look forward to seeing how RWJF is going to continue offering this sort of training and mentorship with all of its grant recipients.”