Skip to Content (Press Enter)
Get active with physical literacy
November 06, 2018
Get active with physical literacy

Our physical therapists encourage children to increase their “physical literacy” by exploring as many different types of movement as possible in early life. By doing so, they’ll build the necessary motivation, confidence and physical competence to remain engaged in a healthy, active lifestyle into adulthood. 

Physical activity recommendations

What kids should be doing…According to the American Heart Association, a daily dose of at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is recommended for children ages two and older. Ideally, children should participate in 60 minutes of continuous activity. However, two 30-minute segments or four 15-minute segments are beneficial. Seems easy, right?

What kids are actually doing…Many children are not meeting their activity levels. According to research done by the Designed to Move organization, daily physical activity levels of children in the United States have declined by 32 percent from 1965 to 2009 and are projected to decline 46 percent from 1965 to 2030.  After learning these facts, unfortunately it’s not so surprising to hear that according to the CDC about 17 percent of children in the United States between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese.

Why does it matter?

Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for health complications, including heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels and diabetes. Based on the average activity level of this current generation of children, their overall life expectancy is projected to be five years less than that of their parents. This is the first time this has ever happened! All hope is not lost, however. If we consider the brighter side, the benefits of physical activity can be exponential and reverse the trend. Regular participation in physical activity can increase life expectancy, control body weight and improve immune function.

Cue the concept of physical literacy and foundational movement skills

Physical literacy has been coined as the “vaccine for inactivity.” The International Physical Literacy Association defines it as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.” Foundational movement skills are the first step.

Consider what it takes to be literate in language. First, we must have a strong foundation in the ABCs, then words, and finally sentences of increasing complexity. To be literate in math, we must understand numbers, fractions and then equations. To be physically literate is no different. We must be confident in foundational movement skills, such as running, throwing and swimming, in order to participate in a variety of physical activities.

Foundational movement skills

  • If you can run, you can participate in soccer, basketball, tag, tennis, track and field, and capture the flag
  • If you can jump, you can participate in basketball, volleyball, high jump and diving
  • If you can throw, you can participate in baseball, softball, bowling, football, Ultimate frisbee and dodgeball
  • If you can swim, you can participate in swimming, diving, water polo, kayaking, sailing and surfing

Researchers in this field have found that those who are physically literate – or in other words, exposed to a wide variety of movement patterns in their early childhood – have more confidence in their ability to participate in complex physical activities. They’re also more motivated to participate in these types of activities throughout their lifetime.

How can I increase my child’s physical literacy?

As a parent, health care provider or educator of children, improving a child’s physical literacy may seem daunting. However, it does not have to be! Begin by encouraging your children to explore different ways to move. Allow your child to use their imagination and ask them what they might want to try. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  •  The International Physical Literacy Association recommends that children are exposed to movement in play while in four basic environments. Examples of activities in the different environments include:

    On the ground – soccer, basketball, tennis, hockey, football, wrestling

    In the water – swimming, kayaking, water polo, wakeboarding, water parks

    On the snow or ice – skiing, snowboarding, ice skating

    In the air – gymnastics, skateboarding, cheerleading, karate

  •  It is recommended that the time spent in structured physical play (sports practices, physical education, etc.) should not exceed twice that of time spent in creative physical play (outdoor play with friends). Creative play helps to prevent injury, promote creativity and develop internal motivation in regard to movement. Some low-cost ideas for creative play might include:


    • Kicking or throwing a ball
    • Stomping on bubbles
    • Climbing on a jungle gym or playing on slides at playground
    • A pillow obstacle course in the living room

    Children and adolescents

    • Jumping rope
    • Playing hopscotch with sidewalk chalk
    • Obstacle courses involving stepping or jumping over pool noodles
    • Practicing walking over zig zag lines made with colored tape
    • Having animal-walk races
    • Playing crab-walk soccer
    • Using swings and monkey bars at playground
    • Riding a bicycle or scooter
    • Playing freeze tag
  • Focusing on one sport for all 60 minutes of daily activity can lead to increased fitness and competitive skill. However, the ability to perform one sport or one set of movement patterns does not translate to physical literacy. Participation in varied activities, including regular trips to the playground or community pool, turning on some music and dancing, going on family walks around the block and trading screen time for physical play in the backyard, can be very effective in improving a child’s physical literacy.

Physical literacy for all

Did you notice how we haven’t mentioned anything about “quality” or “correct technique?” Every child has a unique body and brain, and therefore, a unique way of moving. As long as they’re safe, it doesn’t matter how they do it! Physical literacy applies to children of all abilities. It has little to do with perfection and everything to do with the motivation and confidence to participate in something new.

What’s the long-term impact?

Physical literacy not only improves a child’s physical abilities, but it can also positively impact their character for a lifetime. The Designed to Move organization states that regular participation in physical activity leads to improved self-esteem, leadership, self-discipline, courage, respect and cooperation. In the school setting, it leads to improved academic performance, school engagement, memory and concentration, and ADHD management. Over the lifespan, physical activity leads to higher educational attainment, career success and job salary.1 It may seem like a trivial walk to playground or hour at the pool, but it has the potential to have an impact for a lifetime. Now, let’s get moving!

By Jenny Dent, physical therapist, and Heidi Leeser, physical therapist, Petersburg Therapy Center

Note: If you notice your child having a difficult time developing these foundational movement skills in a safe and efficient way, our pediatric physical therapy team can be a great resource. Physical therapists can provide a comprehensive examination of your child’s strength, balance, coordination and gross motor skills in order to determine barriers to safe movement. We provide therapeutic activities that are engaging and specific to a child’s age, cognitive status, ability level and interests. Contact your pediatrician to find out if your child is an appropriate candidate for physical therapy. Additionally, if you’re wondering what you should expect your child to be doing physically at a specific age, check out our Guide to Gross Motor Skills (Birth to age 5).

1Bailey, R., Hillman, C., Arent, S. & Peitpas, A. (2013). “Physical Activity: An Underestimated Investment in Human Capital?” Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 10, 289-308

Subscribe to our blog

Sign Up