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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.