Physical Literacy

“If knowing your A, B, Cs is essential to becoming a literate individual (able to read and write), and knowing your 1, 2, 3s is essential to math literacy; then what is needed for physical literacy?”

When this question was posed during warm-up for a middle school physical education class several students responded with “sit ups, pushups, and jumping jacks.” Of course this gym scenario easily swayed participants to identify physical literacy as an ability to do exercises. What do you think embodies physical literacy?

Actually exercises with practical knowledge are recommended for gaining or maintaining competence in any subject area. For example just about everyone can do mental exercises (problem sets, brain teasers, crossword puzzles, trivia games, etc) in math, reading and writing to stay sharp or gain knowledge in certain areas. In a cross curricular approach mental and physical exercises can be combined by a physical education instructor. For example while leading exercises a person will count the number of repetitions in another language. Other alternatives would include changing counts to mathematical progressions or code recognition patterns. Changing the way one counts repetitions may reduce the likelihood of boredom.

It requires motivation and persistence to do physical movement exercises in order to stay fit, to rehabilitate after an injury or to strengthen your repertoire of movement skills. Most movement skills begin with basic or foundational ones and then are refined or combined in specified contexts to enable an individual to master a wide range of physical activities in a variety of settings. A good indication of a person’s physical literacy is their willingness to engage in a variety of physical pursuits.

Without a useful capability to engage in a variety of physical activities people will tend towards inactive, sedentary, and otherwise unhealthy leisure pursuits. It is a common goal of health and physical education professionals to support everyone’s capability of choosing healthier alternatives. Healthier choices will in turn lower the financial burden on our nation’s healthcare system.

A national organization of professionals, the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) is undergoing a number of changes in its efforts to unify and advance healthy principles. AAHPERD recently changed its name to SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators. This national organization has approved a new set of standards for physical education which emphasizes the need for physical literacy.

If you do an internet search for ‘physical literacy’ however the top results will likely include web sites from Canada and the United Kingdom. Margaret Whitehead (University of Bedfordshire) has written extensively on the concept. Some of her papers and ideas can be found on her website ( ).

One of her observations was that older terminology such as ‘good at sport’ or ‘physically educated’ implied a person’s embodied potential had achieved an end state or an elite level of finality. To the contrary she relates the new term with a continually emerging capability that all can develop throughout a lifespan (Physical Literacy: Throughout the Lifecourse, 2010).

Physical and Health Education (PHE) Canada is an organization similar to AAHPERD (or SHAPE America). This organization has also adopted a holistic notion as a foundation for leading a healthy life. PHE Canada provides a guide to assess quality PE programs ( ). Note however the checklist is aimed towards improving PE programs and not to evaluate individuals.

Why are these national professional educational organizations interested in this new embodiment of literacy? The simple answer is that physical literacy and literacy are linked in the same way our mind and body are connected. Research supports the positive correlation between physical activity and academic and cognitive performance. Think about it… should physical activity be on your checklist?