April 2019

An Introduction to Physical Literacy

Physical literacy is defined as ‘the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.’*

By E.J. Durden-Myers and N. R. Green

[Editor’s Note: Health literacy was defined by the Institute of Medicine in 2004 as ‘the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.’ It grew out of the recognition that health information, particularly about complex care for chronic disease, could be overwhelming for some individuals. As we learn more about how the human body needs to move on a regular basis and the health benefits of that movement, the notion of Physical Literacy—how the body moves—is now evolving. –JTR]

The notion of ‘literacy’ within the concept of ‘physical literacy’ arises from the importance of our embodied interaction with the world. It is accepted that we have a range of capabilities such as musical, literary, mathematical, etc., which can be developed. We all have an embodied potential and it is important that policies and mechanisms which are influential in providing opportunities to promote physical activity are coordinated, so that individuals can develop physical literacy throughout their lives. Physical literacy differs from most other literacies in its concern for the affective dimension, ie, motivation and confidence, and its focus on lifelong valuing and personal responsibility. However, it shares reference to the application of skills and knowledge and understanding with most others. Through maximizing movement opportunities during the early years, expanding experience in varied environments throughout formal schooling and providing opportunities throughout life to engage in physical activity, everyone has the potential to make progress on their physical literacy journey. Overcoming adversity or injury is also key to making progress and, as such, the healthcare profession has a huge role to play in supporting the development of physical literacy.

Origins of Physical Literacy

The term physical literacy has been used for over 100 years to describe notions, such as physical education, to enhance the quality of life, physical health, and movement vocabulary, to name just a few. The early references were generally from a dualistic point of view where the body and mind were seen as separate entities. The concept of physical literacy has developed significantly over the last 20 years as a result of new research into movement science, embodiment, and neuroscience. As a result, physical literacy has moved away from a dualistic point of view and instead now adopts a monist perspective. Monism is the notion that our mind and body are inseparable, interconnected and intertwined, not discrete elements, as dualists would argue. Physical literacy, informed by monism, leads practitioners to consider the holistic development of individuals engaging in physical activity. This can significantly impact the intrinsic value of lifelong participation in physical activity and the role this plays in enhancing the quality of each individual’s life.

Physical literacy has only been seriously considered as a result of the extensive development of the concept by Margaret Whitehead and others since 1993. Current thinking suggests that the concept of physical literacy is based on the importance of individuals interacting with and creating themselves, within their surroundings, relative to their capabilities and perceptions, as they interact with physical environments. This approach is supported by philosophers from existentialist and phenomenological schools of thought. Existentialism argues that every individual will create themselves as a result of the experiences that they have had interacting with the world. This interaction is, principally, that which takes place in participation in movement forms. It is through working within and responding to different situations that individuals will ‘craft’ their uniqueness and develop their potential to thrive. Existentialism can be used to justify why it is so important that individuals have positive experiences of physical activity in order to realise their full embodied potential. Existentialism is also important in justifying why individuals should experience a wide variety of physical environments in order to maximize their potential to be physically active throughout life.

Phenomenology builds on from existentialism in that it also argues that we are all a product of our experiences and, as such, this provides us with a unique perspective on how we view the world. Each person accrues a specific set of experiences that color their perception of, and responses to, the situations in which they are involved. It is therefore very important that individuals have positive experiences in physical activity so that these can be carried forward into life. Phenomenology helps to justify why physical literacy must consider each individual as unique and therefore interventions to support individuals engaging in physical activity should consider previous experiences and be inclusive. Comparison with others is not relevant as each individual brings a unique set of previous experiences to an activity setting. The imprint of these earlier experiences will affect how participants view the challenges set in the future.

Clinical Utility of Physical Literacy

The interest in physical literacy has gained considerable momentum in recent years due to the global decline in physical activity levels and the rise of sedentary and inactive lifestyles. Physical activity participation globally continues to decline at an alarming rate; as such, alternative methods of engaging the population in lifelong participation in physical activity are being considered with the aim to slow and then reverse this trend and, in doing so, improve holistic health and wellbeing. Physical literacy is a concept that challenges the way in which individuals engage in and understand physical activity. The concept is considered to be a novel approach to physical activity promotion due to its holistic nature that is rooted within the philosophical ideologies of monism, existentialism, and phenomenology.

Specific groups have particular roles to play in terms of the promotion of physical literacy, and thus the promotion of holistic health and wellbeing. These include, amongst others:

  • Parents and carers of young children
  • Teachers and coaches
  • Carers of the elderly
  • Medical and para-medical professionals
  • Academic institutions
  • Central and Local Government/Policy Makers

As highlighted above, those from the medical and healthcare profession have a vital role in supporting the development of physical literacy. Not least in the healthy development of children and adults, but also in the successful rehabilitation and elderly care provision. Promoting healthy attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors that promote lifelong engagement in physical activity will only happen through a multi-agency approach where there is consistent and accurate guidance and messaging. As such, colleagues in education, healthcare, leisure, and transport, among others, all need to work together to create a coordinated approach to physical activity and health promotion; physical literacy offers the medium to create such collaboration.

Physical Literacy Key Messages

The International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA) believes that there are fundamental principles regarding supporting work with individuals, whatever the context, endowment, or age of the participants. Physical activity should be valued in its own right and it is ultimately the responsibility of each individual to choose physical activity for life. Motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding should be fostered in all physical activity experiences through the promotion of holistic embodied health. Everyone should be welcomed and appreciated as individuals on a unique physical literacy journey and their progress on this journey should be celebrated.

If we create the appropriate conditions for each individual, then we should see the following attributes emerge.:

  1. Wanting to take part in physical activity
  2. Having confidence when taking part in different physical activities
  3. Moving efficiently and effectively in different physical activities
  4. Having an awareness of movement needs and possibilities in different physical activities
  5. Working independently and with others in different physical activities
  6. Knowing how to improve performance in different physical activities
  7. Knowing how physical activity can improve well-being
  8. Having the self-confidence to plan and effect a physically active lifestyle.

To facilitate the above, it is important that all individuals, regardless of their life stage, current health status, or endowment, are given the opportunity to continue to make progress on their physical literacy journey. The healthcare and medical profession are crucial to achieving this aim with support in the promotion, maintenance, rehabilitation, and recovery of individuals.

In summary, if we can support individuals by encouraging them to embrace physical activity then we would be contributing to the health and wellbeing of the global community. Embracing the concept of physical literacy provides practitioners with a clear focus for the promotion of human flourishing, health, and wellbeing.

*International Physical Literacy Association. Physical Literacy Definition. 2017. Accessed Online: May 5, 2019. Available at: https://www.physical-literacy.org.uk/

Liz Durden-Myers, MSc, MA, BA(Hons), QTS, FHEA, FRSA, is a Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Gloucestershire and Vice Chair of the International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA). liz.myers@physical-literacy.org.uk

Nigel Green, MA, BEd (Hons) PG Cert, T Cert, FHEA, is an Independent Physical Education Consultant and Chair of the International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA). nigel.green@physical-literacy.org.uk

The IPLA works with a range of professionals who have an interest in promoting and nurturing lifelong engagement in physical activity and would welcome healthcare and medical advocates who would like to learn more about physical literacy and champion the concept within their sector. If you are interested, please contact the IPLA (www.physical-literacy.org.uk/contact) for more information.

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