By: Nicholas Boon

Now let’s turn our attention again to the physical literacy movement.  In this post we will address WHY physical literacy is so important for children, and HOW parents, coaches, and recreation leaders can promote and develop physical literacy in their respective roles.

In a previous post, we addressed the WHO and WHAT of physical literacy.   

Who needs physical literacy?  Literally everyone – but we’ll focus on younger children here.  This is the most important age because physical activity habits developed at a young age carry through life, and children who miss this critical period are at risk of falling behind their peers.

What is physical literacy?  Think of it as the movement equivalent to reading and writing.  Before kids can start reading novels or writing short stories, they first need to learn the alphabet, how letters and words sound together, what the rules of grammar are, and how to string sentences together.
But now onto the juicy stuff!


By now we are all well aware that the physical activity trends of Canadians are abysmal.  And things are especially troubling when it comes to children.

Just 9% of boys and 4% of girls between the ages of 5-12 meet the minimum guideline of 60 minutes of daily activity.  Even at the preschool level (ages 3-5) 15.2% of children are considered overweight and 6.3% are considered obese. (1)

We also know that the list of chronic diseases and lifestyle outcomes associated with poor physical activity engagement is extremely long.  Or that the list of health and social benefits of regular physical activity is seemingly endless.  But we won’t dive down that rabbit hole today.

What we will do is highlight some specific benefits physical literacy has if individuals do engage in physical activity and sport as a child.


Ever heard the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? There’s real truth to it.  Establishing and altering behaviours in early childhood is significantly easier (and more sustainable) than in teens or adults (1).  Not only do kids not have deeply engrained negative habits, but their nutrition and exercise habits are almost entirely determined by parents, coaches, or teachers.


Physical activity (or sedentary) behaviours consistently track from early childhood to adulthood (1). This is obviously a double-edged sword.  If you are a physically active kid, you are much more likely to be a physically active adult; unfortunately, the reverse is also true.


Not surprisingly, physical activity improves physical skills. And just as unsurprising, the more skilled a child is in a given context the more confident they become.  This is key at younger ages, as increased competence directly impacts engagement in sport and exercise as teens and adults (1).


As most of us grown-ups know, activity levels tend to decline with age. Research shows this may start as early as the age of 4 (1).  This trend breeds the vicious cycle we have already alluded to – children who don’t develop physical skills early won’t enjoy or participate in sport or active play, compounding their motor skill deficit relative to peers (2).


Not engaging in physical play also impacts children’s social behaviour in two distinct ways. First, they miss out on the social experience of youth sport – kids regularly meet and make new lifelong friends.  Second, children enjoy playing with others at the same approximate skill level (2), and kids who fall behind in physical literacy may spend less social time with peers as a result (1).


We’re so glad you asked!

First, it’s important to understand that effective physical literacy comes from the combined efforts of parents, coaches, teachers, and leaders in community recreation and youth sport (2).  That said, the responsibility ultimately falls to parents – just like reading, writing, math, or any other basic life skills.  This is evidenced in clear positive relationships between a parent’s physical activity habits and their children’s (1).

Figure 1 below, from Canadian Sport for Life, highlights the roles and responsibilities of physical literacy development throughout childhood.

Acting on Physical Literacy (1) - Who is Responsible
Figure 1: Responsibility for Physical Literacy (2)
It is also important to understand that every child goes through the same developmental stages when learning any new skill.  That said, every child will progress through those stages at different rates, regardless of their environment, participation, or instruction.

Figure 2 (also from Canadian Sport for Life) provides a ourghoutline of what these skill developmental stages look like for the fundamental movement skills addressed by physical literacy.

Acting on Physical Literacy (2) - Learning Skills
Figure 2: Learning movement skills (2)
In the first stage, children are ready to learn once their body (muscles, nerves, etc.) is developed enough to focus on gross motor skills and actions (2).  During this exploratory stage, offer children plenty of diverse opportunities for fun practice with opportunities for “discovery” using a variety of equipment, materials, environments, and games.

Eventually a child will hit the optimal time for skill development, at which point more specific instruction and simple physical cues to correct poor technique can be introduced (2).  The key here is lots and lots of practice in stimulating and supportive environments – not only with supervised coaching, but in a “free-play” environment with peers as well.

If a child misses the optimal stage for fundamental movement skill development, they risk falling behind their peers – and the longer you wait, the greater the deficit will become.  However, even if remedial work is necessary the sooner a child begins to overcome the gap the sooner they will be able to catch up (2).

To tie everything together, we encourage readers to self-evaluate using the Physical Literacy Checklist provided by Physical Education Canada (3).  This checklist provides a simple but thoughtful list of questions for parents, coaches, and teachers to evaluate the physical literacy friendliness of their environments.

The checklist is divided into 4 categories – click on each to see the full list of questions!
  1. Planning
  2. Environment
  3. Instruction
  4. Professionalism


Finally, a list of our favorite physical literacy resources and tools for you to try!

An Introduction to Physical Literacy
A short pamphlet breaking down physical literacy in more detail, including lists of skills and the developmental pathway.

Active for Life: Skills Builder
A fantastic tool for identifying physical literacy weaknesses and strengths in children at different stages of development accompanied by recommended activities.

Active for Life: Activities
Check out this huge bank of activities to develop physical literacy, plus resources articles for both parents and professionals.

PLAY Tools
The Physical Literacy Assessment for Youth (PLAY) Tools offers something for everyone, including resources specifically for parents and coaches.   

Ophea Teaching Tools: Learn to Move
A collection of activity cards and posters – available for download and printing in both French and English – designed for teachers but easily used by parents.

How else do you work to develop physical literacy with young athletes you know?  Tell us all about it in the comments below!

[1] Physical Activity Promotion in Preschool Years: A Critical Period to Intervene – Gary S. Goldfield
[2] Developing Physical Literacy: A Guide for Parents – Canadian Sport for Life
[3] Physical Literacy Checklist – PHE Canada

Source: Steve Nash Youth Basketball Blog
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