Physical Literacy in Children

Physical Literacy for Kids: Updated August 19, 2021.

What is physical literacy?

And why is it so important for children? For U.S. youth, there’s a stark paradox of physical activity: They’re doing either too little or too much.

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. This fosters a culture of elite sports that discourages broad participation.

That’s why improving young people’s physical literacy—the “ability, confidence and desire to be physically active for life” (Aspen Institute 2015)—is so vital. 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/ This 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.

See also: Exercise and Children: Better Brain Health, Less Obesity, Less Stress

The Three Components of 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.

Ability

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.

Confidence

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’re 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.

Desire

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).

See also: Encourage Kids to Choose Fun Activities

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). Overall, the typical child spends 7 hours per day in front of a screen (KFF 2010).
  • 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). But 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 recommendations.

Getting an Early Start

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. This 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.

See also: Children Are Less Active Worldwide

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).

Physical Literacy: 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 physical activity.

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 “10 Ways Fitness Pros Can Help Kids Build Physical Literacy,” below.

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.

See also: Physical Literacy is a Journey, Not a Destination

10 Ways Fitness Pros Can Help Kids Build Physical Literacy

Health and fitness professionals who join the physical literacy movement can play a powerful role in helping children become active for life. Here are several ways you can get started:

    1. Do the research. Learn to understand childhood motor skill development, sports readiness and capabilities for elite training. Figure 1, below, outlines fundamental movement skills. You’ll also see the developmental stages when children are ready to begin to practice and hone each skill.
    2. Get parents involved. Help a child gain skills and fitness via an active-kids program or by working out together with a parent. This is a great alternative to the parent dropping the child off at the health club childcare center while the parent works out.
    3. Build packages. Offer family training packages, classes and programs. You can also provide child-specific training that incorporates physical literacy skill assessment and development.
    4. Volunteer to coach. Train to do it well. Research shows that good coaches can foster an ability in sports, along with confidence and a desire to be active. A bad coach can destroy a child’s physical literacy. The best coaches are trained in coaching philosophy and how to work with kids; in best practices in the area of physical literacy and sports skills; and in basic safety (Aspen Institute 2015).
    5. Move beyond the gym. Take physical literacy programming to childcare centers. An example: The Amazing Athletes® (www.amazingathletes.com) program aims to help preschool children “meet, master, and exceed their motor development milestones” through the introduction of sports like basketball, soccer, volleyball, hockey, golf and lacrosse in fun and engaging group settings.
    6. Lead after-school activity programs. Support the most promising strategy for preventing obesity: participation in high-quality after-school physical activity programs (Kristensen et al. 2014). Many elementary schools contract with providers of after-school activities to offer a variety of enrichment opportunities. The more that children are introduced early to fun and inclusive sports and physical activities, the more likely they will be to develop physical literacy and maintain an active lifestyle for life.
    7. Offer multisport camps for kids. Provide an alternative to overspecialization. Children who participate in multiple sports (instead of specializing early) report more lifelong enjoyment in sport, less burnout, less social isolation and better performance (Sagas et al. 2013).
    8. Get inclusive. Meet the needs of children with disabilities, children who have been ostracized from other sports, adolescent girls, children from low-income neighborhoods, and youth at highest risk for physical inactivity. Two great examples of programs for children with special needs are Surfers for Autism (www.surfersforautism.org) and the Bounce Out the Stigma Project (www.bounceoutthestigma.org), which “uses basketball and . . . motor skill development exercises to instill self-confidence, provide unique peer support, and instill a real sense of achievement” in these children.
    9. Be a PAL. Consider becoming a certified school Physical Activity Leader. PALs undergo a six-step process to gain the credentials and skills to effectively promote physical activity at a school. Here are the six steps: Build support, assess your school, develop your action plan, explore resources, take action and celebrate success. Find more information at .
    10. Become an activist. Get vocal about advocating physical activity in your community. Challenge the school district to increase hours of physical education and support adequate training and resources to maximize active time at school. For example, back legislation such as the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids (FIT Kids) Act, which would support quality physical education in schools, and the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which provides funding for bicycling, walking and Safe Routes to School programs. Join the push against single-sport specialization prior to age 12, and encourage colleagues and peers to do the same.Fig 1

5 Key Principles of the “American Model”

The U.S. Olympic Committee and all of the 48 affiliated national governing bodies endorse the “American Development Model” to help U.S. children achieve their full athletic potential and to use sports to promote active, healthy lifestyles. The model targets adults who play a large role in determining sporting opportunities and attitudes for children. It includes five key principles rooted in the development of physical literacy:

      1. universal access, to create opportunity for all athletes
      2. developmentally appropriate activities that emphasize motor and foundational skills
      3. multisport participation
      4. fun, engaging and progressively challenging atmospheres
      5. quality coaching at all levels

To optimize every child’s sporting experience, the model advocates for five stages of advancement, which are highlighted and described in Figure 2, below, Note that the primary focus for children up to age 12 is to discover, learn and play new sports.Fig 2

 

Coaches and sports programs that follow these principles give more children a positive sporting experience while ensuring that all children—including future elite athletes—have more opportunities to develop their full potential over time.

Collective Impact: 5 Conditions for Improving Physical Literacy

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative has taken a leading role in sparking a physical literacy movement in the United States, largely through reliance on a collective impact model, which relies on five conditions for impact. How this model can be applied to physical literacy is described below:

      1. COMMON AGENDA. A shared vision drives action to ensure that every child has the confidence, ability and desire to be active for life.
      2. SHARED MEASUREMENT. As physical literacy efforts evolve, agreeing on a way to measure and track success helps to align initiatives and measure impact.
      3. MUTUALLY REINFORCING ACTIVITIES. As initiatives take hold across sectors and sports, developing and nurturing partnerships and breaking down silos maximize impact and effect in reaching the shared vision.
      4. CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION. Frequent communication sets the stage to “develop trust, discover resources, and forge partnerships.”
      5. BACKBONE SUPPORT ORGANIZATIONS. An organization that serves as the backbone or “integrator” maintains focus and energy around the issue and helps to advance the vision.

Table 1

Resources for More Information
    • Aspen Institute’s “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game.” Available at http://youthreport.projectplay.us.
    • Nike’s Designed to Move, a call to action and roadmap to create early positive experiences for children and integrate physical activity into everyday life. Available at www.designedtomove.org.
    • Canada’s Physical Literacy hub with physical literacy resources, activities, support tools and parent information. Available at www.phecanada.ca/programs/physical-literacy.
    • Canada’s Active for Life physical literacy resource for parents. Available at http://activeforlife.com.
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References

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.

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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