What is Physical Literacy?

Physical Literacy seems to be popping up more and more in physical education and youth health and wellness circles.  I have two degrees in Physical and Health Education and have had the opportunity to take multiple courses in physical development through life and the benefits of physical activity at all ages, so I know what people are talking about when this term comes up.  But for others, I know it can be a little confusing… is it like reading? YES, sort of…  Reading about physical activity? MAYBE..  Before fully explaining what this term means, I want to highlight why learning more about the benefits of physical activity for yourself and your children is so important.

In 2015, ParticipACTION (Canada’s national non-profit organization designed to help Canadians move more and sit less) released a Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.  The marks our kids received are less than impressive, to say the least. A D- for sedentary behaviour and a D- for overall physical activity! Along with the grade, ParticipACTON has provided a full overview of how and why this score was achieved and what we can do about it.  I will write a summary blog about the findings of this report soon, if you want to take a look at the report now, it can be found here.  Here is a summary of the report, along with a few other important facts:

  • 9% of 5- to 17-year olds in Canada (14% of 5- to 11- year olds and 5% of 12- to 17-year olds) meet the daily recommendation of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. This number has not changed since the last measurement from 2007-2009 measurement when only 7% of 5- to 7-year-olds met the daily recommendation.
  • Canada, like the rest of the world, is currently in an epidemic of overweight and obesity.  In 2013, 42 million infants and young children worldwide were overweight or obese and if this trend is not broken, 70 million young children will be overweight or obese by 2025.  In Canada, childhood obesity increased from 15% to 26% between 1978 and 2004, with increases being highest among youth aged 12 to 17 years old.  Unfortunately, most youth do not learn the necessary habits to change this trend and actually continue to gain excess weight.  If we don’t do something now, 70% of adults aged 40 will be either overweight or obese by 2040.  Put into perspective, that means 7 out of 10 youth that are 17 today will be overweight or obese when they are 40…. something I am sure they do not want to hear.
  • The average daily screen time for Canadian youth in grades 6 to 12 is 7.8 hours!  What!?! Almost 8 hours in front of a screen every day for kids aged 12 to 18??? I’m trying to think back to my childhood and figure out if that is even possible…. This basically means that kids are looking at a screen for longer than most adults sleep each night (Americans sleep on average 6.8 hours a night).
  • More kids are choosing to WATCH sport as opposed to PLAY sports.  In 2010, around 53% of the population aged 12 and above were involved in some sort of leisure time activity that involved being active – this is a slight increase from 2006 but still no where close to the numbers in 1992…. maybe the screen time number is starting to make a little more sense….

Okay, these statistics are scary and sad, but that is not why I shared them.  I shared them because they give an indication of why we need to start talking about Physical Literacy and why it is important to start helping your child get a head start by enhancing their physical literacy when they are young.

So, what is physical literacy?  According to the International Physical Literacy Association, “Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activity for life.”  Physical and Health Education Canada adds that when people are physically literate they move with competence (they are skillful) and confidence in a lot of different activities in lots of different environments.  Physically literate people are able to understand, describe, apply, analyze, and demonstrate different forms of movement.  Using these skills, individuals are able to make healthy, active choices throughout their lives that are beneficial to themselves as well as to other people around them.

Now, what exactly are these special skills or “fundamental movement skills”?  These are the actions and movements that if learned will allow children (and adults) to play and move in a wide variety of sports and physical activity settings.  The National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) views the following as Fundamental Movement Skills:

I would also like to add:

  •  Rolling
  • Hopping
  • Skating
  • Bounding
  •  Skipping
  • Swimming
  • Climbing
  • Landing

If you have younger kids, say under the age of 4, you might be looking at these things and thinking, My Insert name cannot do those things!  That is okay!  These skills develop over time and some children develop faster or slower than others.  Below is a list of developmental milestones that most children should be able to perform at certain ages.

Before 12 months

  • Sit up by themselves
  • Stand and walk without help
  • Pick up and throw things (AKA make a mess!)
  • Roll a ball

Before Two Years

  • Pick things up while standing
  • Walk backwards
  • Walk up and down stairs
  • Colour and paint!
  • Turn knobs and handles


Before Three Years

  • Run forward
  • Jump on two feet
  • Kick a ball
  • Stand on one foot

Before Four Years

  • Ride a tricycle
  • Throw and catch an object
  • Walk in straight line

Before Five Years

  • Jump on one foot
  • Walk backwards
  • Do somersaults


Just by looking at the list above, you can see why it makes sense that your 3-year-old can’t skip no matter how hard you try to show her the pattern.  If developmentally she is not ready to jump on one foot, she is got going to be skipping!

We haven’t gotten into the full details of why being physically literate and active is so important, that post is coming soon.  Trust me that the benefits of being physically literate and active as a child are immense.  Here are some suggestions on how parents can help their kids develop physical literacy and be more active each day!

  1. Try to put a limit on how much screen time your child gets each day.
    • Canadian Paediatric Society provides the following recommendations for daily screen time
      • Under 2 years: NONE
      • 2 – 5 years: Less than an hour per day
    • Instead of watching TV, try these instead:
      • Ask your child to help you with tasks around the house.  Gathering up the laundry, helping wash the car, helping set the table… not only will you be helping to reduce their sedentary time, you will also be teaching them responsibility and work ethic
      • Take a hike together or bike around the bloc
      •  Find an activity that your child really enjoys.
  2. Find an activity that your child really enjoys.
    • Try a new sport every week at home to find a sport that your child really loves.  Maybe it is hockey or soccer or ballet or karate.  Whatever it is, the more your child enjoys the sport, the more he or she will want to keep being active
      • If your child is having difficulty at some sports, try practicing the fundamental movement skills together.  By practicing together you are showing your child that if they work hard and keep trying they will get better.  This will help develop persistence or grit which will become a very, very important skill later in life (blog post some to come)
  3.  Plan ahead.
    • At the beginning of the week think about the times that you and your family will have available to be active.  Maybe even talk to your child about what they are interested in doing (helping to develop independent thinking and decision making skills).
      • Maybe you are able to walk or bike to school/daycare together or maybe you plan a midweek trip to the local park or hike on a nature trail.
  4. Model the behaviour you want to see!
    • Children who see their parents being active on a regular basis are much more likely to want to be active themselves.  They will also see their parents taking care of themselves, which will help to develop self-care skills.
      • If you are not currently physically active, create a challenge for you and your child.  Maybe you aren’t very skilled at some sports, maybe you have difficulty with some of the fundamental movement skills. All the more reason to practice with your child!  Imagine the message you are sending to your child if you are trying something new and practicing to get better!


Please comment below with any questions or provide more examples of how you help your kids get active!

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