Physical Literacy...A Lifelong Commitment

This Summer I had the pleasure and opportunity to work with Kiara Holland from Lewis & Clark University. She was kind enough to help Move2Thrive do in-depth research in physical literacy and surrounding disciplines. Move2Thrive learned a lot from her hard work and I know she gained valuable insight into the importance of movement. 

Below is a paper that she wrote from the research that she did this summer. It is a wonderful resource for those looking to better understand physical literacy. 

Enjoy...and thank you again Kiara! 

Understanding Physical Literacy

Physical literacy is a generally new concept in the world of sport psychology. It was first defined as such: “To be physically literate, one should be creative, imaginative, and clear in expressive movement, competent and efficient in utilitarian movement and inventive, versatile, and skillful in objective movement. The body is the means by which ideas and aims are carried out and, therefore, it must become both sensitive and deft” ( Mandigo et al.). It is a term that has many layers to it, but most importantly means the acquisition of fluid movement during early development. Physical literacy not only determines a child’s development, but allows him or her to benefit cognitively, attentively, behaviorally, and physically. Without its development, children withdraw from physical activity to turn to more inactive and unhealthy choices. In the UK and Canada, programs have been developed to address the obesity problem that works hand in hand with the lack of physical literacy, and these programs could potentially be incorporated more into schooling.  Physical literacy embodies 4 different areas that are crucial to normative behavior: motivation and confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding, and engagement in physical activities for life, which is both the definition published by the International Physical Literacy Association, and in a consensus statement by the leading Canadian stakeholders who are in charge of promoting children’s physical literacy. In this paper, I will analyze the importance of physical literacy for children, and explore the best ways to test it and incorporate it into physical education.

Criteria for Developing Physical Literacy    

According to Whitehead, human beings should be viewed as monist--whole with different dimensions--instead of dualist-- simply of two separate spheres of body and mind. This allows for a more philosophical view of life. Whitehead was one of the first researchers to introduce this topic, and it has become relatively ubiquitous in schools and programs with the goal to acquire it. Physical literacy should develop a fundamental sense of self, and positive relationship to the environment. It is very important for a child to become physically literate due to the excessive sedentary behavior of children in their daily lives--especially because this sedentary behavior will present itself in the future. Physical literacy should be the end-goal of a P.E. curriculum for kids, for the entirety of their schooling from kindergarten until high school graduation so that these young individuals can transcend these ideals into adulthood.

According to Roetert et al. , there are certain elements that are critical for students’ acquisition of physical literacy in P.E. They must have a positive attitude toward physical activity by adopting a sense of enjoyment and achievement; be motivated to continue in active participation of physical activity; be competent in their movement; experience a large range of movement activities that can be challenging but rewarding; possess realistic self-knowledge and self-awareness, helping them to set appropriate personalized goals; understand the nature of movement and the value of physical activity which contributes to their lifestyle outside of school as well; and finally, an understanding of how to achieve physical activity beyond their school day, and to seek this out for their own personal wants and needs (Roetert). Physical literacy is not only being competent in sports; a physically literate person has motivation, the drive for success, a positive view of oneself,  confidence and knowledge for a physically active lifestyle, which by many is deemed extremely important for one’s well being. Accordingly, growing up physically literate reduces risk factors for anxiety and depression, and eating nutritionally well not only reduces obesity, but improves one’s mood as well by reducing stress Though motivation is a major component of physical literacy, some subsections of motivation are achievement goals, expectancy-values, interests, self-efficacy, and self-determination (Wigfield et al.). One of the most dominant sources of motivation is termed perceived competence. It drives your motivation to take part in the activity, mainly due to the fact that you usually do not engage in activities you think you are incompetent in, which ties into the self-esteem issue because thinking you are a certain way, and how you really are can be vastly different. Therefore, children and adolescents with high perceived competence tend to have higher motivation. Interest is another powerful driving force since they can come in two forms-- personal or situational. Personal interest is a relatively stable mental state where one does not change their mind due to circumstances, however, situational interest derives from challenges, or instant enjoyment, but can be useful for coaches for instant motivation. Personal interest is very important in terms of physical literacy. According to Stodden et al., “mastery engagement” and “attempts” (Stodden et al.) help to build a child’s perception of their competence, which can influence their persistence in continuing the task. Task difficulty does not depend solely on self-perceptions of ability, but also on actual competence.

FMS and Motor Development

FMS, or fundamental motor skills, are locomotor skills and object control skills that involve running, galloping, skipping, hopping, sliding, and leaping. FMS are a precursor to context-specific and skillful movement, and Whitehead categorized movement capabilities as fundamental, combined, or complex. Simple movements are core stability, balance, coordination and change of speed, and these combine to create more difficult movements. Balance, core stability and control can create equilibrium, for example. In order to be able to perform the more complex movements though, one needs to have mastered the simpler ones. FMS are therefore required for motor development and to engage in lifelong physical activity. According to the SHAPE guidelines for physical education, grade-level outcomes should reflect competencies of the age group and reflect proper stages of motor development. For elementary school (kindergarten until 5th grade), stress is put on knowledge and values, the most important being motor skills with a combination of dance and gymnastics to learn foundational skills. For middle school, stress is put on applying these skills to different areas, learning different strategies and social behaviors in games and sports. Finally, the high school curriculum stresses vigorous activity, as well as more independent activities, that the student can take into adulthood (Roetert). There are also certain ramifications for teachers who incorporate physical literacy into their class schedule, as they will have to change it in order to include these new activities. Teachers will have to develop a schedule that keeps the students engaged, spend more time to ensure a student’s acquisition of a skill, and create individualized tracking for each student, which could be tedious, but create a space that will not allow disengagement in P.E. With a goal of physical literacy joined into the curriculum, each student should go at their own rhythm, and teachers should avoid student comparison.

Despite the need for children to learn FMS, many do not actually become proficient enough. Welk suggests that the important of actual competence is overshadowed by one’s perceived competence. Motor skill competence can be tested with the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency (BOTMP), along with children’s self-perceptions of adequacy when performing and their desire to participate.  Motor skill competence was positively correlated with adequacy and desire to take part, while sedentary behavior was negatively correlated. Along with FMS, three aspects in the development of muscular strength are the ability to recruit motor units, the ability to increase motor-unit firing rates, and “a decreased activation of coactivation of muscle agonists and antagonists” (Stodden et al.), which are imperative for neuromuscular development. As an individual grows, in the middle to late childhood, higher levels of motor competence in FMS can allow individuals to perform physical activity for a longer period of time than beforehand. Being physically fit is also something that helps children to maintain it for a longer period of time. Overweight children are prone to have lower motor skills competence, due to their increase in mass, and their sedentary behavior which causes less fluid movement and room for improvement for motor skills.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation also breed different results and play a major role in a child’s acquisition of physical literacy. If a child learns that sports are designed for fun and winning is not the objective, they will grow up with a positive view of physical activity because they play due to their own internal wants and needs. On the other hand, if they are taught that sports are about winning first, they have an objective to win, and they are more likely to drop out of the sport due to possible incompetence, or a low self-esteem from the pressures of needing to win. The self-determination theory explains that humans rely on both intrinsic and extrinsic sources. The difficulty of physical literacy is that the teachers can go above and beyond to teach the students the benefits of an active lifestyle, but the student must also meet them halfway and become self-motivated and autonomous individuals. According to Barnett et al. , the “effectance” model of motivation explains that behavior leads people to find how the environment can be changed and the consequences of these changes. It also described that having a feeling of efficacy is will positively affect an individual’s mindset. Finally, for an individual to embody physical literacy, he or she must engage in physical activities for the intrinsic values such as enjoyment, self-actualization and the sense of efficacy.

In a school setting, children can be motivated in P.E. through externally controlled regulation processes. With an external regulation mechanism, children can become motivated with an award or punishment system. With an introjected regulation system, children can be motivated to prove a sense of self-worth. The last type of system is called an identified regulation system, which is deemed almost complete autonomy because the children learn to identify themselves to the behavior, so that it can be incorporated as part of their identity (Chen, 2015). It is important for individuals in a school environment to feel self-regulated instead of feeling controlled by the teacher. According to Chen et al. (2015), the rewards system of P.E. is detrimental for children because it stresses winning or losing, and causes them to associate physical activity with earning a grade and not for the enjoyment of the sport.

Physical literacy also aids cognition by helping children to acquire the ability to “read” what is going on around them in an activity setting and responding appropriately to those events. In an attempt to test the impact of physical education on children’s cognition, physical activity habits, and gross motor coordination (GMC), Dalziell et al. conducted a study with students aged 9-11 years old in Scotland. The assessment included a 16-week intervention, and used the “Cognitive Assessment System (CAS)” GMC tests, and the “Physical Activity Habits Questionnaire for Children (PAQ-C).” As of 2015, there still has not been enough studies done that focus on the longer-term impact of P.E. on children’s cognition. This current study used a program called “Better Movers and Thinkers” (BMT) designed for children aged 3-18, with a range of socio-economic backgrounds in Scotland. The BMT methodology includes the acquisition of physical literacy, enhancement of thinking skills, and several important qualities such as perseverance and resilience for self-improvement on a personal level. Working memory, selective attention, and inhibition tasks are all areas in which children benefit by increasing levels of physical activity. According to Best et al., acute and chronic exercise can both improve cognitive thinking. The programme BMT focuses on developing these links between movement and thinking, while traditional P.E. focuses on tactical skills required for sports in general. In the study,  primary schools were involved, with class sizes ranging from 25-30 students, leading to about 150-180 students total (Dalziell et al.). The cognitive assessments system was created to evaluate the Planning, Attention, Simultaneous and Successive (PASS) of individuals aged 5-17. This PASS theory postulates that human beings function with 4 cognitive processes: “planning processes that provide cognitive control; utilisation of processes and knowledge; intentionality and self regulation to achieve a desired goal” (Dalziell et al.). In order to test this, students will perform four Gross Motor Development tasks, such as crawling on their stomach, 4-point crawling, and marching like a soldier. These will be used to identify developmental problems or milestones to work from, and tested on a range from 1 to 5; 1 meaning inability to perform the task; 2 having no consistency; 3, homologous, upper and lower body not integrated; 4 homolateral; and 5, contralateral. The PAQ-C used to measure physical activity has been validated through other studies, showing to indicate high reliability, and is a self-administered, 7-day recall instrument. Students will be working either one on one with the researcher, or in small focus groups. Finally, the comparisons of the intervention and control conditions will show the effectiveness of BMT as an alternative P.E. in primary schools.

Despite the fact that obesity and sedentary behavior are a global problem, Canada has been in an especially dire situation over the past years. Results from the 2012 and 2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) indicated that adults aged 18 to 80 years old spent approximately 4 hours per day physically active (light activity such as walking), and 9 and ¾ hours was spent being sedentary. The CHMS collected data from individuals aged 6-79 years old, and accelerometers were used to track their health throughout the day, with a mean wear time of 13.6 hours. The results of the study show that children spent 8.6 hours sedentary, with 20 minutes more for girls than boys. According to the CHMS results, only 7% of Canadian children get the recommended 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day, and 53% of children only do so 3 days a week.

The Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy (CAPL), produced by the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, was created to assess physical literacy among children in grades 4 to 6 and has been shown to be both valid and reliable. Canada is the most advanced in its physical literacy research and in implementing programs for it. In a 2015 study (Longmuir et al.), 963 Canadian children (55% female) in grades 4 to 6 aged 8 to 12 were evaluated by their engagement in physical activity, their physical competence, their motivation and confidence, and their overall knowledge and understanding. The assessment was created based on consultations with researchers in childhood physical activity.                         

The Canadian Assessment of Movement and Agility (CAMSA) was primarily used to assess the complex and fundamental movement skills required to support physical literacy. Before the same children in the above study began to be evaluated, their parents first filled out a screening questionnaire to mention any medical conditions or disabilities that could deter their performance. Since this assessment is extensive, it lasted from 2007 until 2012 in three phases. The participants chosen for this type of assessment were usually from day camps or local schools. Principals from several different schools were invited to have their students take part, and they could either accept or decline. Children with disabilities were allowed to take part as well, to the best of their abilities, and all children were able to self-report their age and genders.

The initial assessment included jumping with both feet, hopping on one foot, throwing and catching while running, dodging side to side, and kicking a soccer ball (Longmuir et al.). These types of movements were designed to mimic those that they would need to perform in physical education classes. The feasibility assessments were completed by 594 students, aged 8 to 12, but several issues came up immediately in their design that needed to be addressed. The initial space was too large compared to elementary school gymnasia, and following this, the scoring of the movements could be subjective depending on the observer. Finally, the CAMSA had the children travel 20 m while doing the following: sliding from side to side for 3 meters, catching a ball and finally, throwing the ball at a wall 5 meters away. Another component of the assessment was the use of the Delphi process, which is a technique used for gathering data from respondents in their domain of expertise. It employs multiple iterations and is designed to develop a consensus on a specific topic, usually going through three rounds of feedback to reach this consensus (Hsu et al.). The first round of the Delphi process began with open-ended questions to enable the participants to share their expertise related to movement skill assessment. The Delphi process was designed to develop recommendations without influence from peer comment.

The Delphi panel for this assessment achieved consensus that speed and movement worked together and were both important for the scoring. Physical literacy was scored by looking at speed and complex movements of the children-- those with greater physical literacy would move with more agility and quickness, while those with lower physical literacy would be slower. The first demonstration was slower because the children were being shown the different activities, while the second one was much faster and scored them until they kicked the soccer ball as their final activity. During their performance, the only spoken words by the researchers were to remind them of the next task--no encouragement was given that could alter how they performed. As well as this, all of the examiners were research assistants with post-secondary degrees in kinesiology with backgrounds on how to speak and act accordingly. Finally, the children’s scores were based on the Test of Gross Motor Development Version 2. According to Giblin et al. , the individual receives a score of 1 if the skill is completed and 0 if not. The TGMD-2 constricts movement skills to a specific context, and fundamental for normal development.       

This assessment was tested for two separate days to make sure of its reliability and validity for functioning in the future. The amount of time ranged from 2 to 14 days depending on the camp or location, and the scorers watched the video recordings over a 5 day period. The video recordings were useful for creating an objectivity to the study, and because the children would not be able to replicate their performance after. This also allowed the examiners to arrive at a better consensus by viewing the children's’ performances from the same angle. The assessment showed that children need to be competent in a myriad of movement skills, and that physical literacy can be tested by having children perform tasks at quick speed and scoring them after based on a list of skills for the right age-level. Another way is to administer the same test for all ages to reveal differences in the expected performance based on age. In this assessment, the same test was used for all ages so the differences could be reviewed.

Discussion, Limitations and Future Research

The Test of Gross Motor Development Version 2 as a motor test does have several limitations; the individual receives a score of 1 if the skill is achieved, and 0 if not, so it becomes an all or nothing situation. The assessment constricts movement skills to a certain context, and in the context of physical literacy, there should be more sophistication. According to Giblin et al. (2015), these types of tests are administered in clinical settings, and are trying to measure motor deficiency. Before the children could start the test, they were shown how to perform by the demonstrator, which could reflect an adult’s expertise instead of a child’s movement level.

On the other hand, the BMT alternative schooling could allow for the children to receive quality physical education. The study is currently limited because it is still relatively new and in need of in-school testing to make sure it can replace the usually teaching of physical education, and to make sure the goals of physical literacy are clearly articulated. Several other limitations to self-report questionnaires can sometimes show a lack of accuracy, and it becomes difficult to know if they are valid.

Along with changing the way physical education is administered, it is becoming increasingly important for children in physical education to voice their own goals. Since teachers have such an influence on their young students, they must incorporate time aside in their schedules to meet with each student individually. Finally, they must check back in with the student, and remain an encouraging voice so the student embraces self-knowledge and self-awareness, helping them to set their personalized goals so he or she has enough interest in both pursuing physical activity, and a healthy lifestyle.


Kiara Holland

Student, Lewis & Clark University


Works Cited


 Castelli, Darla et al. "Contextualizing Physical Literacy in the School Environment: The  

             Challenges." Journal of Sport and Health Science (2015): n. pag. Web.

Chen, Ang. "Operationalizing Physical Literacy for Learners: Embodying the Motivation to

            Move." Journal of Sport and Health Science (2015): 125-31. Web.

Dalziell, Andrew. "Better Movers and Thinkers (BMT): A Quasi-experimental Study into the

            Impact of Physical Education on Children's Cognition—A Study Protocol." Preventive

            Medicine Reports (2015): 935-40. Web.

Giblin, Susan, et al. "Physical Literacy: Importance, Assessment and

           Future Directions." Http:// N.p.,

           Sept. 2014. Web.

Hsu, Chia-Chien, and Brian Sandford. "The Delphi Technique: Making Sense of Consensus."

           Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation (2007): n. pag. Web

Longmuir, Patricia E., et al . "Canadian Agility and Movement Skill Assessment (CAMSA):

          Validity, Objectivity, and Reliability Evidence for Children 8–12 Years of Age." Journal

          of Sport and Health Science (2015): n. pag. Web.

Mandigo, James et al. "Physical Literacy Concept Paper." Canadian Sport for Life (2007): n.

          pag.  Web.

"Physical Activity of Canadian Children and Youth: Accelerometer Results from the 2007 to

          2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey." Physical Activity of Canadian Children and

         Youth: Accelerometer Results from the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey.

         N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Roetert, E. "Unpacking the Physical Literacy Concept for K-12 Physical Education: What

           Should We Expect the Learner to Master?"

Stodden, David, et al. "A Developmental Perspective on the Role of Motor

           Skill Competence in Physical Activity: An Emergent Relationship." Quest (2008):

           290-306. Web.    

Wigfield, Allan and Jenna Cambria. "Student's Achievement Values, Goal Orientations, and

        Interest: Definitions, Development and Relations to Achievement Outcomes."  

        Developmental Review (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Whitehead, Margaret. "Physical Literacy: Philosophical Considerations in Relation to

           Developing a Sense of Self, Universality and Propositional Knowledge." Sport, Ethics,

           and Philosophy (2007): 281-98. Web.