The Importance of Teaching Kids Physical Literacy


Tips On How To Get Your Kids Moving This Spring:


“Dr. Mantell, now it’s his PHYSICAL literacy I have to worry about?” asked one parent with whom I was speaking about her child’s lack of physical activity. “Isn’t it tough enough to just get him to read something instead of constantly play those stupid games all day long on his Xbox?” she groaned.


I can certainly empathize. Whenever we’re with our grandchildren, ranging from 5 to 15 years old, their grandmother, a certified personal trainer, always keeps them active. “Uh oh, Grandma Paula is going to get us moving with one of her newest workouts,” they’ll sigh. And boy does she ever bring a bag full of fun kid workouts with her for workouts at home.


Let’s all remember that when many of us grew up, we rode, ran, raced, recharged and refused to come inside until the streetlights came on and our moms called us in to sit down and do our homework. At least that’s how it was for me.


We didn’t need to be told that we needed physical literacy to be healthy. We just spent our time running, skating, dancing, jumping, leaping, dodging, catching, bending, twisting, reaching, and even swimming when we could. It didn’t matter if it was on land, ice, water or snow. We had fun playing youth sports. We were fit kids, and didn’t necessarily think we were playing games for kid’s health. We were just playing.


We didn’t think about the harmful effects that not being active would create. I guess we were quite confident in our abilities to be agile, balanced, strong, flexible, coordinated and fast…in other words, we were physically literate!


Physical literacy isn’t about being competent in just one sport or one activity. Children and teens that are physically literate are those who are motivated, and able to engage in a wide range of healthy physical activities that are good for their body and mind. Physically literate children continue to make healthy choices about physical activities throughout their lives to live in optimal health.


Creating physical literacy today is not as seemingly hands-off and natural as it once was. Digital toys and technology notwithstanding, kids are far more sedentary in general than in previous times. So how can we promote and advance physical literacy in our children today?

Here Are 4 Steps To Help Your Child Develop Physical Literacy:


  1. It begins with you. Are you a good role model? Grandma Paula is a terrific example of creating interest in physical activity. Show your children your passion for being active at home, in the gym, on the sports field or at the local boot camp. Be encouraging and never punitive or critical of the rate of physical development. Don’t compare your child’s speed, for example to another youngster’s on the track.
  2. The more variety, the better. Start slowly with games that include playing catch, hopping, jumping rope, racing to the end of the block and skipping. These are all ways to build interest and keep it fun. Help your child find success and enjoyment in the gym, martial arts, team sports, solo activities and in other ways of increasing movement.
  3. Do activities as a family to improve physical literacy. Be sure your children’s school promotes opportunities for a wide range of physical education. Does your child have at least 30 minutes of vigorous activity per day for toddlers and 60 minutes per day for preschoolers at home or in day-care?
  4. It starts at birth so don’t forget your infants, who even at one or two months of age, begin developing physical literacy. For example, can your two month old lift his/her head and chest while on his/her stomach? At four months old, can he/she roll over from back to front, support him/herself on elbows and grasp for objects? By 18 months, can your toddler walk, stand and sit independently, walk up steps holding your hand, even begin to run? At four years old, can he/she run, kick, throw and swim? By five years old, can he/she play some basic sports, ride a bike with training wheels, and follow a basic dance pattern? Does he/she have at least an hour a day of physical activity?


If your child can’t or doesn’t catch, jump, run, swim or throw confidently, forget team sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, or even track and field events. Can’t throw well? Bye-bye to baseball, bowling, softball and football. Can’t swim with confidence? Sailing, surfing, diving and water polo can be crossed off the list.


Boys at 6–9 and girls at 6–8 do best with unstructured play with guidance from adults focused not on one sport but on developing agility, balance and coordination that comes from catching, throwing, running, hitting, and other similar general activities for about 30 minutes each day.


Older boys 9-12 and girls 8-11, do well with developing fundamental movement that can be applied to a few different sports during different seasons of the year. They are still not ready to focus on only one sport. Flexibility, speed, endurance and their own body weight for strength-building activities are appropriate emphases at this stage.


For those who want to delve into physical literacy in children in more detail, the best source I’ve found is in the 40 page “Developing Physical Literacy: A Guide for Parents of Children Ages 0 to 12” from Canadian Sport for Life, freely available here

Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has been providing psychological and coaching services for nearly 5 decades and continues to empower positive change among his global clients to enhance life in every way. He is a highly sought-after healthcare professional coach, an executive and team building consultant, and a longtime specialist in cognitive behavioral coaching.

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