Physical Literacy: Why Our Kids Need It & How They Can Get It
A nationwide movement shows why so many children exercise so little while an elite few become carried away with sport-specific training.
They’re doing either too little or too much.
For U.S. youth, that’s the stark paradox of physical activity. While
more than half of adolescents fail to accumulate the recommended 60
minutes of exercise at least 5 days per week (CDC 2015), many young
athletes are becoming specialized too early in life, which fosters a
culture of elite sports that discourages broad participation.
Improving young people’s physical literacy—the “ability, confidence and
desire to be physically active for life” (Aspen Institute 2015)—is
essential to addressing this paradox. Low physical literacy contributes
to a childhood obesity epidemic, an uptick of sports injuries and a
national crisis of physical inactivity across the lifespan.
Health and fitness professionals are important players in a nationwide
movement to promote and support physical literacy, which in turn will
help to set the stage for a healthier, more active, more productive
generation of children, from elite athletes to recreational enthusiasts.
To foster this change, fitness pros need to understand the intricacies
of physical literacy.
What Is Physical Literacy?
Physical literacy has three components that predict lifelong physical
activity: ability, confidence and desire (Aspen Institute 2015). Those
who have all three stay active longer.
Physical literacy requires fundamental movement skills—such as running,
jumping, skipping, throwing, hopping and swimming—that young people
typically develop during unstructured play. Consequently, children who
lack the opportunity to build these skills become less interested in
games, sports and free play as they mature. This is the first risk
factor for a lifelong sedentary lifestyle. That’s why the physical
literacy movement aims to help all children develop fundamental movement
skills starting from the youngest ages, when motor skills like rolling
(4 months), sitting up alone (6 months), pulling to stand (9 months),
walking (12 months), running (15 months), throwing (18 months), jumping
(2 years), catching (3 years), swimming (4 years) and skipping (5 years)
begin to emerge.
Meanwhile, children who specialize in a sport too early often fail to
develop fundamental movement skills across the spectrum: A child who
focuses on baseball does not learn to swim; a soccer player does not
learn to throw a baseball. This puts youth at risk of a less active
lifestyle after they have stopped playing competitive sports. Table 1
highlights the consequences of poorly developed fundamental movement
Young people need a sense of self-efficacy in their ability to play
sports or enjoy physical activity. Confidence develops from early
positive experiences with physical play and inclusive sports that
welcome children of all abilities. When youngsters enter a
hypercompetitive sporting environment before they are ready, many
experience failures that turn them off to sports altogether.
“The term ‘athlete’ is a turnoff for most kids,” said Nathan Plowman in
an Aspen Institute Roundtable on early positive sports experiences.
Plowman, partnerships director for Nike’s Access to Sports division,
noted that “most kids have decided by the age of 9 whether they’re an
athlete or not, and most kids have decided that they’re not an athlete
by the age of 9. So any concepts around being an athlete are kind of
irrelevant to many kids” (Farrey 2013).
This unfortunate reality is why physical literacy efforts are pushing
hard to help all children experience the benefits of sports in an
inclusive and fun environment.
An interest in (and enjoyment of) physical activity and movement fuel a
desire to stay active. Desire develops from early positive and enjoyable
experiences with play and sports. When surveyed, 9 out of 10 children
said “fun” was the most important reason they played a sport. They
reported that the most fun experiences were trying their best, being
treated respectfully by the coach, getting playing time, playing well as
a team, getting along with teammates, exercising and being active.
Children placed a much lower priority on winning, playing in
tournaments, practicing with specialty trainers and coaches, earning
medals and traveling to new places (Aspen Institute 2015). Adults need
to recognize a child’s definition of fun. As eloquently noted by sports
sociologist Jay Coakley, “Kids in baseball say they want to hit, catch
and run. Yet, what do parents do as soon as they take over? Eliminate
the hit, catch and run by telling kids not to swing, or maximizing use
of a pitcher who strikes everyone out. They eliminate the basis for fun”
(Aspen Institute 2015).
Why Focus on Physical Literacy?
Thomas Jefferson once said: “Leave all the afternoon for exercise and
recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more
necessary, because health is worth more than learning.”
Benefits of exercise are pronounced, including physical, mental,
psychosocial and brain health, which also lead to improved academic
performance (IOM 2013). Something was lost when our pursuit of academic
excellence became defined by standardized test scores and when physical
activity vanished from children’s daily routines—except for an obsession
with grooming elite athletes from the earliest years. Essentially, we
lost sight of how recreational exercise and play help children to become
good students and to mature into healthy, productive, happy adults.
A Largely Sedentary Population
Focusing on physical literacy can help counter a global epidemic of
physical inactivity. The U.S. has been hit particularly hard, starting
from the youngest ages. Consider this:
The typical preschooler spends over 6 hours per day in sedentary
activity and just under 15 minutes per day in moderate to vigorous
physical activity (Dolinsky et al. 2011).
Over 30% of kids watch 3 or more hours of TV per day on school days
(CDC 2013), and overall the typical child spends 7 hours per day in
front of a screen (KFF 2010).
Despite the Institute of Medicine’s strong recommendation that all
children get 60 minutes of physical activity per day, mostly through
before-, during- and after-school programs (IOM 2013), a scant few
actually achieve those recommendations. This is partly because few
states require physical education from kindergarten through high
school (NASPE & AHA 2012). Schools also have many exemptions, meaning
there is little guarantee a child will get enough exercise to meet
Avery Faigenbaum and Wayne Westcott, authors of the ACE® Youth Fitness
Manual (2013), make a compelling case for the necessity of all children
developing physical literacy from their earliest years. These experts
describe a chain of inactivity with lifelong consequences:
Failure to develop fundamental movement skills such as running,
jumping and catching in the first 5 years of life leads to poorer
motor skills and coordination in elementary school, which in turn
leads to less movement confidence in the tween years.
Higher levels of sedentary behavior in tweens and teens increases
disease risks in teens and young adults, which raises the risk of
health setbacks in adulthood. Ultimately, a child who lacks physical
literacy is very likely to be a physically illiterate adult who faces
a heightened threat of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes
(Biswas et al. 2015) and other health hazards.
Furthermore, failing to develop physical literacy early in life perturbs
the very experience of childhood. Sedentary children miss out on more
than fun; they also forgo important benefits such as leadership and
team-building skills, greater self-esteem, and lower levels of stress,
anxiety and depression (HHS 2012).
The Risks of Too-Early Sports Specialization
Successful athletes have an abundance of ability, confidence and desire,
the bulwarks of physical literacy, but pressuring youth to specialize
too early in life can come at a cost.
A survey of 300 Olympic-level athletes aimed to understand the
predictors of elite athletic performance. The athletes overwhelmingly
described an intrinsic love of physical activity (ranked first), love of
the sport (second) and early success (third) (Visek et al. 2015)—key
markers of physical literacy. Notably, the Olympic-level athletes played
about three sports per year until age 14, and most played more than one
sport throughout high school. Furthermore, the vast majority of
professional and Olympic athletes began sports specialization after the
age of 12 (Sagas et al. 2013).
These studies make a compelling case that participating in a variety of
sports and physical activities helps children and preadolescents improve
physical literacy skills and optimize later successes, even for elite
athletes. In contrast, children pressured to specialize too early in a
single sport can lose the opportunity to fully develop a variety of
fundamental movement skills. These children are also more likely to
endure an overuse injury and become bored with their game. In fact, 6 in
10 kids say they quit sports because it was no longer fun (SFIA 2012).
A Growing Movement
A multisectorial, widespread campaign to improve physical literacy in
the United States is trying to undo the harms of rampant physical
inactivity and help children and adults reap the benefits of lifelong
Under the leadership of the Aspen Institute, Project Play (Physical
Literacy in All Youth) is spearheading a national movement to create a
culture where physical literacy is the norm. Supported by leaders in
public health, business, medicine and academics across the United
States, Project Play aspires to see U.S. children become active in
sports regardless of skill, neighborhood or ability to pay. The project
wants youngsters to be physically literate by age 12.
More and more organizations, disciplines and stakeholders are joining
forces to promote and support physical literacy. Much of the work will
be done through a collective impact model. This model of collaboration
and optimal impact is described in detail in the sidebar “10 Ways
Fitness Pros Can Help Kids Build Physical Literacy.”
Fitness Pros Can Have an Impact
As physical literacy becomes a national topic of conversation, health
and fitness professionals are poised to play an important on-the-ground
role in helping children develop the ability, confidence and desire to
be physically active for life. Acquiring expertise in this area offers a
real opportunity to make a profound impact in the lives of children and
their families today and of future generations.
Aspen Institute. 2015. Project Play. Sport for All, Play for Life. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. http://youthreport.projectplay.us.
Biswas, A., et al. 2015. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 162 (2), 123-32.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2013. Youth online: High school YRBS. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/Default.aspx?SID=HS.
CDC. 2015. Physical activity basics: Children. Accessed Jun. 24, 2015. www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/children/index.htm.
Dolinsky, D.H., et al. 2011. Correlates of sedentary time and physical activity among preschool-aged children. Preventing Chronic Disease, 8 (6), A131.
Faigenbaum, A., & Westcott, W. 2012. ACE® Youth Fitness Manual. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.
Farrey, T. 2013. Early positive experiences: What is age-appropriate? The Aspen Institute’s Project Play. Roundtable Summary. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/pubsCoaching%20roundtable%20summary%20report%20–%20What%20is%20Age%20Appropriate.pdf.
HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 2012. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Strategies to Increase Physical Activity Among Youth. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. www.health.gov/paguidelines/midcourse/pag-mid-course-report-final.
Higgs, C., et al. 2011. Developing Physical Literacy: A Guide for Parents of Children Ages 0 to 12. Canadian Sport for Life. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. http://canadiansportforlife.ca/resources/developing-physical-literacy-guide-parents-children-ages-0-12.
IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2013. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2013/Educating-the-Student-Body/EducatingTheStudentBody_rb.pdf.
KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). 2010. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-Olds. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/.
Kristensen, A.H, et al. 2014. Reducing childhood obesity through U.S. federal policy: A microsimulation analysis. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 47 (5), 604-12.
NASPE (National Association for Sport and Physical Education) & AHA (American Heart Association). 2012. Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. www.shapeamerica.org/advocacy/son/2012/upload/2012-Shape-of-Nation-full-report-web.pdf.
Sagas, M., et al. 2013. What does the science say about athletic development in children? The Aspen Institute’s Project Play. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/pubs/Project-play-september-2013-roundtable-resarch-brief.pdf.
SFIA (Sports & Fitness Industry Association). 2012. The Journey of Sports Participation: 2012 Grassroots Sports Participation in America Study. Accessed Jun. 8, 2015. www.sfia.org/reports/295_The-Journey-of-Sports-Participation-in-America.
USOC (U.S. Olympic Committee). 2015. 5 Stages to a better sport experience. Accessed Jun. 24, 2015. www.teamusa.org/About-the-USOC/Athlete-Development-Coaching-Education/American-Development-Model/stages.
Visek, A.J., et al. 2015. The fun integration theory: Towards sustaining children and adolescents sport participation. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 12 (3), 424-33.