Physical literacy is foundational to health and development in early childhood

Dr. John Cairney

In a previous blog I discussed the importance of physical literacy in helping to acquire the building blocks of movement at a young age. In this entry, I discuss why we are increasingly coming to realize that physical literacy is not just essential for healthy active living, but that it is actually foundational to overall health and development.

As parents, we want our children to be healthy, to do well in school, to be liked by their peers, etc. It is reasonable to ask then, is physical literacy only about lifelong participation in physical activity? The answer is no, in part because of the growing body of evidence that physical activity itself is positively associated with a wide array of physical, mental and social outcomes including academic performance. Simply put, the more physically active your child is, the better he/she will do in school, and the healthier he/she will be. On this basis alone, if physical literacy is necessary for lifelong physical activity, then it is also essential for the health and well-being of your child. While this is true for all children, youth and adults, there are other connections we can make, specific to key developmental periods.

The early years, which we typically define as the period from birth to six years of age, is a critical period of child development, owing to the rapid changes in growth and development, both physically and in relation to brain development, that occur during this period. With regard to this period, I have argued physical literacy is not just about the development of fundamental motor skills, confidence, competence and enjoyment of movement, the development of physical literacy is inextricably linked to other aspects of development including cognitive or brain development. These connections are rooted in our understanding of the linkages between areas of the brain that are associated with both movement or motor control (which is linked to a part of the brain called the cerebellum) and what neuroscientists and psychologists call executive functioning (which is another part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex). Executive function refers to mental abilities that are essential for learning, and for us to think and act in a complex world. In other words, there are direct connections between movement (motor skill) and the development of language, thinking and reasoning.

During early childhood, when a child practices a motor skill, they are building and strengthening neural connections that prepare them for lifelong learning and well-being. When you also consider the emotional, behavioural and social dimensions of physical literacy – competence, confidence and fun (which lead to positive things like increased self-esteem) physical literacy is also connected to positive social and emotional development as well.

So, why isn’t physical literacy a core part of all early childhood programs? I think part of the reason is that the connections between physical literacy, physical activity and brain development are not widely known outside of research. As parents, we should be insisting that our children have structured and unstructured opportunities to develop physical literacy. Much like we recognize that literacy (language and reading) and numeracy (mathematics) are core components of education that will prepare our children for success now and in the future, we must view physical literacy on the same grounds. After all, movement is essential to our existence. We experience the world not as dis-embodied spirits, but as embodied beings. Ignoring physical literacy is to ignore, with great peril I would add, a core dimension of our humanity.