Physical Literacy – the other literacy that’s critical to your child’s development

Dr. John Cairney


I was fortunate to be able to spend a few days in Vancouver this past month, listening and discussing the concept of physical literacy with colleagues from across Canada, the US, Great Britain and Europe. Among the speakers was Dr. Margaret Whitehead, who is widely regarded as a leading expert in the field and author of the modern concept of physical literacy. It was evident at this gathering however, that much confusion still exists regarding what physical literacy means (including how and even whether we can measure it). For many parents, educators and individuals who work with children, the term may be altogether unfamiliar.

Dr. Dean Kreillaars from the University of Manitoba introduces the concept this way: as parents and educators, we understand that children need to learn how to read, write and do math. We do not simply drop a book in a child’s lap and say, now READ! Yet, that is typically what we do when it comes to physical activity and our children. Physical literacy then, is no different from other aspects of literacy. Children are not born physically literate – they need to be supported, nurtured and provided with supportive environments to facilitate the exploration and development of movement patterns and experiences.

It is important however that we do not only think about this solely in terms of movement skills (i.e., the ability to kick a ball, run, hop, and jump). While those movement patterns are foundational, other attributes of physical literacy, which include the enjoyment, motivation, and knowledge to be physically active, are all part of the definition. We can see evidence of a child becoming physically literate when that child is able to move confidently, with poise and economy, through ever increasingly challenging movement experiences. Think of the remarkable progression from when a child first learns to walk, to playing in unsupervised games (e.g., freeze tag) with other children, to participating in a team sport like soccer, where the child not only has to demonstrate motor skill (dribbling and kicking a ball), but do so quickly, read the environment, anticipate future events, and react to play of other players. Dr. Whitehead views physical literacy as both an “embodied” experience - a whole person where mind and body are not separated - and as a process that is “for life”, meaning physical literacy is a lifelong journey, and is inextricably linked to the very essence of what is to be human.

Practically, like learning to read or manipulate numbers, physical literacy is about providing the child with the necessary building blocks, dispositions and experiences that lead to lifelong participation in physical activity. Of course, every child’s physical literacy journey will be unique. Some children are born with the physical attributes that put them on a path toward elite athletics; many more children are not and some children are born with challenges, owing to physical or cognitive ability, which means the kind of physical activity they engage in will be specific to the strengths and abilities they possess.

But all children can and should be encouraged and supported to be physically active, even though most will never go on to high performance sport.

See for Canada’s Physical Literacy Consensus Statement.

To learn more about physical literacy: