Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be on the Board of Directors for Physical and Health Education Canada. Representing my home province of Nova Scotia was a role I took very seriously while I served as a tenure track professor of physical education at St. Francis Xavier University.
During my time on the Board of PHE Canada, we had a name change (sound familiar US colleagues?). CAHPERD became Physical and Health Education Canada. As well, the BOD’s amazing Ontario representative at the time, Dr. Jamie Mandigo, approached the Board and suggested we adopt a definition of the term physical literacy. Dr. Mandigo and his colleagues (Dr. Nancy Francis, Dr. Ken Lodewyk, and Dr. Ron Lopez) at Brock University developed the following definition of physical literacy after speaking to Dr. Margaret Whitehead at length in addition to studying her work. Obviously, the vote was unanimous and the definition of physical literacy put forth was adopted by PHE Canada. It was an exciting time for physical education in Canada!
Physical Literacy Definition
Physical and Health Education Canada defines Physical literacy as:
Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.
- Physically literate individuals consistently develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply, and analyze different forms of movement.
- They are able to demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently, creatively and strategically across a wide range of health-related physical activities.
- These skills enable individuals to make healthy, active choices that are both beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and their environment.
Canada Sport for Life defines physical literacy a bit differently.
Physical literacy is the mastering of fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills that permit a child to read their environment and make appropriate decisions, allowing them to move confidently and with control in a wide range of physical activity situations. It supports long-term participation and performance to the best of one’s ability.
Physical literacy is the cornerstone of both participation and excellence in physical activity and sport. Ideally, physical literacy is developed prior to the adolescent growth spurt. It has been adopted as the foundation of the Sport for Life concept in Canada.
Competence, confidence, and a wide variety of environments
While the definitions do vary, both agree that the following components are indeed important ones.
- Wide variety of environments
So, let’s talk about this, shall we?
I bring these topics up because I often hear folks using the term physical literacy interchangeably with physical activity and physical education. They are not the same. I thought I would focus this blog on one area of the definition to help demonstrate how the terms are different - although, they are each important to each other.
When we develop curriculum or a yearly plan for our PE programs, we must ask ourselves the following questions if we care to have our program in line with the definition of physical literacy.
- Am I supporting the development of a physically literate person by helping her/him to develop the competence necessary to choose to perform skills on different surfaces (water, ice, land [inside, outside])?
- Am I supporting the development of a physically literate person by helping him/her to develop the confidence to perform skills on different surfaces (water, ice, land [inside, outside])?
- Am I supporting the development of a physically literate person by helping her/him make healthy and productive choices with these skills in a variety of settings (fair play, no cheating, no performance enhancing drugs, no disrespect)? [Side note: if looking for a great story to share with students about someone who falls into the ’all that is good with physical literacy’ check out this blog post: Scott Mercier Story]
- Am I supporting the development of a physically literate person by helping him/her learn how to fall in a variety of environments, how to navigate in a variety of environments, and how to make decisions in authentic environments?
As Dr. Margaret Whitehead repeated to me last week via Skype (she credited with bringing this term to the masses, by the way), physical literacy is a cradle to grave concept. It’s not just something PE teachers should be interested in. Parents should be interested in it, too. I believe that, as professionals, PE teachers should work hard to inform parents how they can support their child’s growth on the physical literacy journey.
- Ask about “registration time lines”. I pulled my three-year-old out of dance this week. Not because it is a bad activity. I LOVE dance. Rather, they wanted me to sign her up from August until the recital in June. That is ten-months of one activity. I pulled her out because it’s winter time. So, we are doing winter activities. My two-year-old comes too and wow...we are having so much fun! They fall a lot. They get back up. They smile and say “I am skating all by myself” although it sounds so much cuter the way they say it. I’m here to tell you, don’t fall victim to thinking your children will get behind if they do multiple activities. To be honest, does it really matter? I’ll re-enroll her in dance again next August. She enjoys it very much! But, switching has been such a wise move. My girls are making new friends at public skate, they are gaining so much confidence while increasing their physical skills, we are enjoying some awesome time on the ice and on the playground outside the rink. Score Score Score. To those who say, why not both? Well, she’s three and she’s already in another activity (gymnastics). I don’t want to schedule so much that we don’t have time for playgrounds, digging in dirt, and going for hikes with our neighbor’s dogs.
- Consider different surfaces when planning activities (organized or family activities) and camps (summer, spring break). There are lots of day camps available or activities to sign your child up for. When planning consider different surfaces and the types of activities that they include:
- Water - swim lessons, swim team, diving, surfing, water polo
- Ice - skating lessons, skating with family/friends, hockey, sledge hockey, curling
- Snow - cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, downhill skiing
- Land (inside and outside!) - basketball, volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics, biking, hiking, running, walking
- Just as you should introduce different healthy foods to your child often, you should introduce them to different types of physical activity. This will allow them to gain the confidence in the different areas. Full disclosure, my kids will ask for a TV show when I want to go outside and play. They also don’t like wearing a seat belt. And, not unlike most adults who don’t always feel like going for a run initially, everyone is much happier after doing physical activity. In other words - if they don’t want to try a new activity initially, they end up enjoying themselves. Here are a few things we’ve been up to lately (all pics taken in the past 30 days).
Where is the technology in these images?
While I think it’s awesome that so many are doing a great job of integrating technology in PE, I must say my favorite part of skating and hiking with my family, and triathlon/endurance event training is the lack of technology involved. It allows me to be with nature, and not just in nature. I heard a great talk by Dr. Nic Forsberg and Dr. Shannon Funk while at PHE Canada national conference this fall. They spoke about Richard Louve’s work related to nature deficit disorder. While not a scientific term, the work is pretty tough to argue with. If we don’t interact and learn about the environment, how are we doing to care enough to take care of it? So, I get that technology is important to learning. I get that it helps student engagement. I totally agree it has its place. I also feel that there is a time and place to shut it off. To unplug. To communicate in person rather than through twitter.
What if my child is 100% happy in one sport year round?
A happy active child is not something I advocate messing with. You know your child. If this is indeed the case (and, you are not just talking yourself into believing it is the case), be proud of how happy your child is and the opportunities that are presented. I know a lot of teens who are doing a sport year round and look forward to it all the time. I do suggest finding ways to help them develop other muscles to avoid injury related to overuse. However, don’t read this and feel I am judging decisions that are working really well with your family if they differ from some of the suggestions I present (I hate when people do that). The aim of this post is to address a few pieces of this term to help folks better understand it.
Work with your athletes and their parents so they don’t feel they have to choose between participating in your sport and another if there is room for both. I recall my coaching experience at the Collegiate School in Richmond, VA back in the early 2000’s. My awesome colleague, Bill Rider, welcomed a star field hockey player to play for our school soccer team even though we knew she would miss time due to her field hockey commitments. Well, Jamie Whitten Montgomery is now a member of the US Field Hockey team. We enjoyed coaching her very much. She was a very positive leader and solid defender who contributed in any way we asked. The team welcomed Jamie - she was a positive and supportive member of our team - and realized she was working toward a major goal on the days she wasn’t at our practices. Yet, Coach Rider didn’t expect her to go to both (he was a firm believer that avoiding burnout and injury are necessary - smart man).
Cradle to grave
I have heard my amazing colleague Dr. Mandigo, as well as the incredible Dr. Whitehead speak about physical literacy being a journey. Dr. Whitehead reminded me just last week that she refers to it as a journey from cradle to grave. Let’s not get stuck on the now. The reality is, there will always be someone better than your child in a particular sport. The goal might not be to raise an incredible sport specific athlete. Perhaps the goal is to raise a child who is active for life.
The aim of physical education is certainly not to produce the best athletes in a single sport. However, focusing on physical literacy will undoubtedly help kids become more proficient in athletic movement. They will learn how to fall in addition to throwing and catching. Why does this matter? Well, when we know how to fall, we’ll be more likely to descend on a mountain bike (for example) because if we go over the handlebars (endo) as I have been known to do, we end up doing a forward roll and laughing - rather than breaking a bone and crying (although, that can be unavoidable, too). It gives us the competence to know how to respond in an environment that is a little bit different. It forces us to be creative in our movement and to be present in our activity. It gives kids a sense of confidence because of their enhanced skill development.
Physical education and sport curriculum need to be designed with purpose. If physical literacy is to be the foundation, outcomes must support the physical literacy journey. This includes the development of competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activity environments. Yet, physical literacy is certainly not just the acquisition of fundamental movement skills. PE teachers should be mindful of the physical literacy journey when developing yearly plans and parents should be mindful of supporting the journey through unstructured play and organized physical activity choices. I purposefully did not speak about assessing physical literacy in this post - that baby deserves its own space.
In closing, in case you are wondering why we should care? It’s about health prevention. Do you know how much the diet industry and health and wellness coaching professionals are making these days? The vast majority of adults do not feel they have the competence in physical activities. Thus, they are not confident enough to be physically active. While this same age demographic likes to talk about how “awesome things were back in the day”, I personally feel sad that so many in my generation and the one above me failed to fully understand the importance of personal responsibility related to physical activity. Unfortunately, a truly unbalanced portion of respect is given to those who want to solve problems after they occur than those who want to prevent them in the first place. If we all, as PE teachers, coaches and parents, are serious about supporting our students, athletes, and children’s journey in physical literacy, we will pay close to attention to confidence and competence in a wide variety of environments. We will put our students, athletes, and children in situations where they learn how to fall - and, get back up, while being physically active.
How about you and/or your school?
Does your program aid students’ development in their journey?
What might you change to make physical literacy more of a focus in your PE programs?