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What is physical literacy and why is it important for children today?

What is physical literacy and why is it so important?

Understanding physical literacy is now essential for P.E. teachers worldwide. But what is physical literacy and why is it so important?

More schools are placing an emphasis on physical literacy, especially in physical education. It has been identified as a major outcome of quality programming. More than ever, teachers and youth coaches need to be able to integrate the concept into their lessons. In this post, we are going to look at everything you need to know about physical literacy and why it’s so important for children today.

What is Physical Literacy?

There are various definitions for physical literacy. Long-Term Athlete Development features five of these, but we’ve picked out three of the most well known.

Understanding the definitions can help fight childhood obesity and the rising inactivity among children. This problem needs to be addressed if we’re to prevent the current generation of children from growing up unhealthily.

Research has also shown that without physical literacy, children can withdraw from physical activity and sport. This can lead them to more inactivity and unhealthier choices during their lives (Kirk, 2005). People need to feel confident in activity settings to enable them to be physically active in later life. This mainly comes from learning fundamental movement and sport skills as a child.

Physical literacy learning that integrates participant choice provides children with the opportunity to take ownership over their learning. It also encourages engagement in learning that matters most to them. Back in June 2017 Heather Gardner, author of Physical Literacy on the Move wrote a blog on the subject.

Margaret Whitehead

Although various authors have championed the concept, there’s some confusion over it’s earliest use. Dr. Margaret Whitehead is seen as one of the spearheads following her paper, The Concept of Physical Literacy (2001). Whitehead has revised her definition of physical literacy in papers published in 2006, 2007 and 2009. The current definition is:

“In short, physical literacy can be defined as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, understanding and knowledge to maintain physical activity at an individually appropriate level, throughout life”

Canadian Sport for Life and PHE Canada

Canadian Sport for Life (2005) and Physical and Health Education (PHE) Canada (2011) offered another definition:

“Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities that benefit the healthy development of the whole person”

This means that physically literate people are able to:

  • Develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply and analyse various forms of movement
  • Demonstrate a variety of movements confidently and competently across a wide range of physical activities
  • Make healthy, active choices that are both beneficial to and respectful of their selves, others and environment.

More information on physical literacy and developing these skills as a teacher can be found in the new online course from PHE Canada and Human Kinetics, Physical Literacy: An Introduction.

Long-Term Athlete Development

The final definition is used in the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. It describes the accumulated skills and attitudes that children need to develop before the onset of the adolescent growth spurt. It refers to the combination of basic human movements and fundamental movement and sport skills necessary for engaging in health-enhancing physical activity and/or pursuit of excellence in sport.

Physical Literacy Development in Children

Physical literacy is the development of fundamental movement and sport skills. These allow children to move confidently and competently in a wide range of physical activity and sport situations. Physical literacy also includes the ability to ‘read’ what’s going on in particular situations and reacting appropriately.

For complete physical literacy, children should learn movement and sport skills in four basic sport environments:

  • On the ground – the basis of most games, sports, dances and physical activities
  • In the water – the basis of all aquatic activities
  • On the snow and ice – the basis of all winter sliding activities
  • In the air – the basis for gymnastics, diving and other aerial activities.

Failure to develop physical literacy puts children at a great disadvantage when it comes to full engagement in physical activity and sport. Developing physical literacy in all children requires a combined effort from parents, guardians, teachers and sport coaches. Also it’s critical that professionals involved in the development of children have an understanding of what is meant by physical literacy and how it can be developed.

During this period of development, it’s important to remember that children aren’t just miniature adults. Although children mature and learn at different rates, almost all children learn fundamental movement skills in the same sequence and phases. For almost every skill, children need to pass through a series of developmental stages. Few can skip a particular stage and still learn the skill. Although, some may pass through a developmental stage within a very short space of time.

Therefore, the goal for parents should be to move to the next version of the skill they’re learning rather than pushing them to perform the skill as an adult would. Professionals working with children also need to be familiar with the developmental stages of learning the skills.

Physical Literacy On The Move

Related product:

Physical Literacy On The Move

Heather Gardner

Appropriate Skill Development in Children

Given the way PE is delivered in schools, it can be difficult for parents to ensure their children are being exposed to a sufficient range of movement skills.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to work out what physical literacy skills a child learns from a each sport. The image below can help better explain this.

Fundamental movement skills needed to develop physical literacy
Figure 3.5 The types of fundamental movement skills developed by various sports

However, this list isn’t a definitive list, as programmes can change all the time. Also, not everyone agrees with which sport programmes help best develop which physical literacy skills.

Making sure that all children have the opportunities to develop physical literacy will always be a challenge. This is particularly true for children that come from background traditionally underrepresented in physical activity, recreation and sport. These underrepresented groups have typically included:

  • Children with disabilities
  • Girls
  • Disadvantaged inner-city children

Parents need to demand that schools, preschools and sports clubs are making physical literacy a priority. This means making programmes child-development centred, rather than sport centred. Furthermore, programmes to develop physical literacy need to be child centred, parent driven and club, school and community supported.

There are implications for many sport programmes in the move towards developing these skills rather than sport-specific skills. Specifically, sport programmes need to:

  • Incorporate a wide range of fundamental movement skills into warm-ups, drills and cool-downs
  • Teach fundamental sport skills to all participants regardless of the event or position they might play or compete in
  • Ensure that children have access to a wide range of sports and don’t specialise in one too early
  • Partner with other similar sports to provide a broad introductory experience.


Physical literacy is the development of a range of basic human movements, fundamental movement skills and foundational sport skills. These skills give people the tools to engage in health-enhancing physical activity for life. However, it’s important to consider a few things when thinking about physical literacy:

  1. What are the consequences of a child missing out on learning a critical fundamental movement like throwing or catching? 
  1. What could be done in schools to ensure that children become physically literate?
  1. How can we keep children from specialising in one sport too early?
  1. How would you define physical literacy if you wrote your own definition?
  1. What is the major problem facing a parent who wants to ensure that a child develops physical literacy?

Further Reading

This entry was posted in: Coaching & PE


Hi, I’m Hannah, marketing assistant and one of the bloggers here at Human Kinetics Europe. I wasn’t blessed with the coordination to play most sports, but that’s not stopped me becoming a great watcher of them. Particularly when it comes to football! So I’m here to bring you all you need to know about exciting new product releases and the latest in sport, fitness and PE.

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