Physical Literacy: A Parent’s Perspective
by Joey Feith
As some of you may know, my wife and I are expecting our first child (a baby boy!) in March of 2018.
Being a dad is something I have always dreamed of. Since the age of 16, I’ve been working with young people (other people’s kids) as a camp counsellor, coach, mentor and teacher. The idea of starting my own family, of Jess (who is also a teacher) and I raising our own child is something that is both incredibly exciting and intimidating at the same time.
Over the past months, I’ve been reaching out to all of my friends who have kids of their own to pick their brains in regards to their experiences as parents. Although I know that, when the kiddo arrives, my paternal instincts will kick in, it’s still nice to learn about parenting from other people’s perspectives.
As a physical educator, I obviously want to ensure that my child grows up to value health and physical activity. In other words, I want to make sure that my son gets to enjoy his own, unique physical literacy journey throughout his lifetime. That’s why, in order to help me better understand physical literacy from a parent’s point-of-view, I asked my friend Dr. Amanda Stanec if she would be willing to be on The #PhysEd Show Podcast to share her knowledge and experience with me and the show’s listeners.
Amanda Stanec is a physical education, physical literacy and sport consultant based out of St. Louis, MO (although she’ll proudly tell you that she was born in Nova Scotia, Canada). She is the founder of Move Live Learn: an organization committed to helping people live healthier lives. A physical educator herself, Amanda is one of the strongest voices within the online physical education community and someone that I have consistently turned to in order to learn and grow as an educator. Through her work as a consultant and author, she has created materials that have helped shape our profession and that have had an impact on countless young lives around the world. Despite all of the professional achievements and accolades tied to her name, Amanda will tell you that her greatest honour in life is being the mother of her three children. Over the years, I’ve been following her parenting advice and experiences creating a family life that values physical and health literacy.
I’m so fired up about how the interview went and I’m super pumped to be able to share it all with you!
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If you’re a parent or educator looking to learn more about physical literacy, physically literate communities, and physically literate families, I put together these extensive notes to help compliment the podcast and allow you to dive deeper into these important topics. Enjoy!
Understanding Physical Literacy
Before we look at physical literacy from a parent’s perspective, let’s start off by defining and unpacking physical literacy.
Physical and Health Education Canada defines physical literacy as an individual’s ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person. This competence and confidence helps physically literate individuals develop the motivation to engage in healthy activity which, in turn, empowers them to participation in healthy, active living throughout their entire lifetime.
Physical competence (i.e. the ability to move your body successfully or efficiently) is at the core of physical literacy. However, physical competence is more than just being able to perform certain skills: it also involves being able to understand how to select, perform, sequence, and adapt skills based on the environmental and situational settings.
Dr. Dean Kriellaars breaks this idea down into four essential parts:
Awareness: “How am I positioned in space?”, “Where is my body relative to my other body parts?”
Selection: “What is the appropriate movement to perform in this environment/situation?”
Sequencing: “How can I combine movements in order to achieve my goal/complete this task?”
Modification: “As the environment/situation changes, how can I adapt my movement in response to those changes?”
Having that cognitive understanding in combination with the physical ability is what leads to full physical competence.
Getting back to the original definition by PHE Canada, it’s important to remember that physically literate individuals feel confident moving in not only a wide variety of physical activities, but also in multiple environments as well.
Feeling competent and confident in multiple environments is essential because it keeps the doors to physical activity open regardless of season, weather, or terrain. This is important because, being the adventure that it is, you never know where life is going to take you.
Speaking of which, that brings me to my next point: physical literacy is a journey, not a destination. It is something you begin to develop the day you are born and will continue to develop throughout your lifetime. It is an adventure that will be full of twists and turns, fun and failure, challenge and success, and risks along the way.
As we grow older, as we experience new environments, as we develop new interests and friends, our physical literacy will adapt and grow and change with us. With each new undertaking, each new adventure, we develop our competence. That feeling of competence will help us become more confident in physical activity settings. That confidence will help us develop an increased motivation to be active and healthy. In turn, that motivation will empower us to participate in physical activity throughout our lifetime.
… and as we participate in new, exciting, challenging, active adventure, our competence grows and the cycle begins again.
Why Is Physical Literacy Important?
Now that we have a better understanding of what physical literacy is, it’s time to take a look at why physical literacy is even important in the first place!
In a nutshell, physical literate individuals are more likely to engage in physical activities throughout their lifetime.
As you probably know already, there are amazing benefits to engaging in regular physical activity.
- Increased Physical Fitness: Regular engagement in muscle-strengthening and/or aerobic exercises can help you increase or maintain your muscle mass, muscular strength, bone density and aerobic capacity. These benefits can help you maintain healthy physical fitness levels which can help you continue to do everything from completing everyday activities to living wild adventures. [Read More]
- Improved Physical Health: Maintaining healthy levels of physical activity can help you prevent and control risk factors for diseases and conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, certain cancers, and obesity. [Read More]
- Adoption Of Healthy Lifestyle Habits: Adopting physical activity as a lifestyle habit (via regular engagement) can impact the motivation you have to adopt similar healthy lifestyle habits. [Read More]
- Improved Social Skills: Under the right conditions, participation in physical activity can help young people develop important social skills such as conflict-resolution skills, self-esteem, trust, self-control, and sportsmanship. [Read More]
- Increased Psychological Wellness: Individuals who exercise on a regular basis are more satisfied with their life, happier, self-confident, and resilient. Active individuals are experience enhancement in regards to their mood. [Read More]
- Improved Mental Health: Participating in regular physical activity can also help individuals reduce the risk of anxiety and depression. Also, moderate physical activity has been linked to protecting the brain against Alzheimer’s disease. [Read More]
- Increased Cognitive Skills: Regular exercise has been linked to improvements in focus, memory, and creativity. [Read More]
- Higher Rate Of Educational Success: Finally, physical activity has been linked to lowered drop-out rates, reduced absenteeism, increased test scores, and overall improvements in academic performance. [Read More]
Ok, so why does any of this matter? The simple answer is that our children deserve to live the best, healthiest lives possible. However, the reality is that too many people are dying prematurely (about 9% of the estimated global 57 million deaths in 2008… that’s 10 years ago!) of reasons linked to physical inactivity (e.g. coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancers). That’s about 5.3 million deaths that came too soon.
Unfortunately, the fact that people are dying too young isn’t enough to catch certain people’s attention. So here are some additional reasons that might make more
$53.8 billion ($INT). That is what physical activity cost health-care systems internationally in 2013 (that’s five years ago). Money that could have been used to protect our environment, help communities rise out of poverty, or find cures for family-shattering diseases instead went towards disease and illnesses that could be prevented. It’s a terrible amount. Who paid for it?
According to the same study linked above, $31.2B ($INT) dollars were paid by the public sector, $12.9B by the private sector, and $9.7B by households.
It’s bad enough that society is setting the current generation of young people up for failure in terms of living a long, healthy life. Add the financial burden associated to a physically inactive society and we are basically burying them alive. They deserve better.
We know the cost and impact of allowing physical inactivity to become the norm in society. That said, we also know the amazing benefits of leading a physically active lifestyle and that the key to a physically active society is physical literacy. Developing physically literate communities is not an impossibility, but we need to work towards this goal together in order to make it happen.
It Takes A Village
“It takes a community to raise a physically literate child”. How do we work together, as communities, to help ensure the development of a child’s physical literacy? Let’s take a look at some of the community influencers that can positively impact the development of physical literacy in young people.
As Amanda said in the podcast, physical education teachers absolutely are the champions and leaders for physical literacy as they have the knowledge, expertise, and skills to educate others.
Physical educators are responsible for the design and implementation of curriculum that empowers students to develop the skills, knowledge and understandings that are essential to physical literacy.
Physical education is therefore an essential part of each child’s academic experience. However, the development of one’s physical literacy during school hours needs to occur beyond the silo of physical education. Baking opportunities for the development of physical literacy into every aspect of school life (e.g. in the classroom, during recess, through intramural programming, in interscholastic sport, through extracurricular activities, at school events) helps ensure that it becomes part of your school’s culture.
Beyond the school, health services (e.g. governmental programs, hospital initiatives) play an important community role when it comes to physical literacy. Health practitioners (e.g. doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, etc) can help families make decisions that are aligned with physical literacy by developing programs that promote health and wellbeing and/or by encouraging families to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. If your doctor focuses more on getting you active rather than simply prescribing pills, that can have a large impact on the way you value physical activity in your daily life. The same goes for departments of health at the government level who create awareness campaigns/resources that promote the benefits of active living rather than simply warn against the dangers of sedentary lifestyles. All of these examples play a role in the way we view and value healthy active living.
Sport & Recreation
Local departments of sport and recreation also play a big role in an individual’s physical literacy journey. Having access to publicly available spaces (e.g. parks, baseball diamonds, hiking trails, tennis courts, swimming pools, skateparks, etc) encourages individuals to participate in physical activity by taking down the barrier of having to travel far in order to be active. Experiencing organized sport at the local level – when proper organization, planning, and coaching are involved – provides kids with an opportunity to make sport part of their life as of a young age. The variety (or lack of variety) of local sport programs available during childhood/adolescence can have a long-term impact on the types of activities individuals feel confident participating in later on in life.
Public laws can have a positive or negative impact on the physical literacy of a community’s citizens. An example Amanda gave of this in the interview was city engineers refusing to build a bridge if the plans did not include walking/biking paths. I was once stopped by Halifax law enforcement for longboarding on the street. The police officer informed me that it was illegal to skateboard in the city unless you were in one of the skateparks. He didn’t seem to understand that I use my longboard as a means of transportation and that it isn’t built for skateparks, but he also didn’t give me the ticket so I can’t complain! That said, a communities laws can either promote or hinder the development of physical literacy and lawmakers need to be aware of this fact (and the cost of ignoring it) when writing legislation.
Media can play a huge role in the way we view and value physical activity. As we consume information in the media, we form opinions on topics that can be then internalized and become part of our identity. For example, if we always hear radio hosts or TV personalities/characters complaining about how much they hate jogging, then that can influence us to decide that jogging must not be a fun activity. Alternatively, if we learn about Olympians and watch their performances in awe, then that might influence us to see the value and beauty of sport.
Lack of coverage can be an issue as well: if we never hear about local sports or athletes, we might not become aware of the opportunities for physical activity in our area. However, if our media consumption is broken up with news and messages from physical activity leaders, that puts physical activity back in our minds and keeps it front and centre as we make decisions about how we plan to spend our time. To this day, I still have Hal and Joanne’s Body Break jingle burned into my memory!
Finally, our life at home greatly influences the development of our physical literacy. Friends and family are one of the biggest influences on our health, which is why it is so important for parents to be mindful of the types of decisions and behaviours they are modelling/promoting when at home.
Parents’ Role In Physical Literacy
Knowing that parents are a key influencer in regards to the health of their children, what are some things that parents can do to promote the development of physical literacy in their family life?
Values are at the core of every individual and every family. Our values dictate our goals, which in turn dictate our decisions, which in turn dictate our actions. As children, we learn values by watching and observing our parents which makes it easy to understand how our decisions and actions as parents can influence the way our children value physical literacy.
There are many ways in which parents can show that they value physical literacy. Amanda shared how her husband and her start their day off with morning runs. They work around the common barrier of “we need to watch the kids” by taking turns going for their runs and squeezing both runs in before their children wake up. By the time the kids are up, both parents have already exercised and are energized for their day. This is a great example of how the value of health and physical activity is shared with their children through decisions and actions (i.e. waking up early and taking turns running) that show that both parents care about physical activity, understand how important it is, and know that it empowers them to be the best parents they can be.
Making physical literacy something your family values can be done in many other ways as well. It can be anything from attributing friendships to leading an active lifestyle (“Mommy wouldn’t know your classmates’ parents if we didn’t all run together”), to becoming a parent volunteer in local youth sport, to buying gifts (for both family and friends) that promote physical activity (check out Amanda’s active gift guide), to always parking the mini-van far away in order to squeeze in a few extra steps.. The important thing to remember is that your actions express your priorities… and that your kids are watching and learning.
Traditions are a key component of family life. Every family has their own set of traditions which are oftentimes carried down from generation to generation. One of my family’s traditions is an ice fishing weekend at our family cottage. Growing up, we would go out and check the lines, build snow forts on the ice, and clear a makeshift rink to skate around on (or at least slide on). We grew up learning how to read the ice, to know when it was safe, how to walk on it, and how to set up ice fishing lines (sadly, we never learned much about the actual catching of fish). Because of that tradition, I feel confident and excited to be out on the ice when the lake is frozen over. However, my wife – who did not grow up around lakes – absolutely hates being out on the ice as she is in constant fear of crashing through it.
On the other side of the coin, Jess spent her summers growing up hanging out on the beach in Pugwash, Nova Scotia (which is where we got married). She’d collect starfish, dig up razor clams, play with hermit crabs, and watch the massive tides move in and out. Our first summer together, we went out to Pugwash so I could get to know her beach. Without wanting to sound too cowardly, the ocean freaked me out. I mean, I had spent time in the ocean before (my brothers and I used to road trip down to New Hampshire for surf trips), but I had never been on a beach with so much life going on. It took me a while to get used to the tickle fish, crabs, seals, and jellyfish (all of which Jess thought was very funny).
All of this to say that our family traditions have played a role in the development of our physical literacy. Traditions are often built around values and become part of who we are as we grow older.
A family tradition can be anything from an annual camping trip, to Saturday morning family yoga, to playing hockey on the outdoor rink in the park every winter. By starting (or continuing) traditions that promote physical literacy, you help physical activity become part of who your children are as individuals (even if who they are are terrified beach dwellers).
The physical environment we grow up in can affect our physical activity levels. Having access to space to play in and equipment to play with provides young people with opportunities to develop their physical literacy while at home. This can include a having a room dedicated to play and movement (I’ve always admired Amanda’s “Movers and Makers” room in which you can find everything from balance beams to duct tape), setting up swings in the backwards, to finding bicycles/rollerblades/skateboards for your kids.
Your home environment can also be affected by the rules you set up as a family:
- Is running allowed in the house?
- Can we have dance parties in the kitchen?
- Are kids allowed to go to the park across the street?
The home is only one of the environments we grow up in. Places like school, local recreation centres, or even parks and streets provide additional environments that can support the development of physical literacy. As Amanda mentioned in the interview, parents can influence these environments by forming relationships with the policy makers that have an impact on their design and accessibility. For example, Amanda offered to speak at her local school district meeting. From there, she was invited by the superintendent to sit as a volunteer on a steering committee. The superintendent then invited her to speak on physical literacy to all of the school district’s principals. Her daughter’s principal attended that presentation and asked if they could afterwards so that she meet to learn more. This led to the principal adding a 20 minute recess to the school day at her daughter’s school!
Relationships matter. Kindness matters. If you want to help create an environment that allows the development of your children’s physical literacy to thrive, then taking action, meeting people, being kind, and helping educate others is the recipe for success!
Making physical activity part of your family’s routine is an important step to take in order to ensure that your children are getting the opportunities they need to develop their physical literacy at home. Not only does it help your children see that you – as parents – value physical activity and want to make it a family priority, it also helps create some structure in the chaos that is family life.
That being said, as Amanda states in the interview, do not feel like your children need to participate in organized sport in each and every season. Youth sport is an important part of the physical literacy journey. However, we need to be aware of the dangers of overscheduling as it can impact sleep by getting kids excited, pushing back dinnertime, homework time, and bedtime.
Scheduled activities don’t all need to be organized sport: scheduling time for unstructured play (e.g. playdates, trips to the park, free swim time) can give kids the free play time that they so desperately need.
If you’d like some help creating an active family schedule, I’d recommend that you check out the Family Calendar resource from Let’s Move! It provides families with templates and ideas to help them make physical activity a part of their daily routine. Also, there are a ton of great apps (like Picniic) that can help parents organize and manage their family’s schedule.
Learn More About Physical Literacy
If you’d like to continue to learn more about physical literacy, here are some great posts from Amanda’s site, Move Live Learn, that I’d recommend you check out:
Over the years, several leaders have influenced my understanding of physical literacy. Here are some of the names that stand out along with links to their social accounts and/or websites:
Dean Dudley: Twitter
Dean Kriellaars: : Twitter
Blog Posts & Resources
Here are some links to blog posts, PDFs, presentations, and other resources that I think you would enjoy!
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe to The #PhysEd Show podcast (Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Stitcher), vlog (YouTube), and live events (Facebook)! Also, don’t forget to give Amanda a shout out on Twitter to say thank you for having shared her amazing expertise, passion and enthusiasm in regards to physical literacy!
Ok, time to get ready for this baby!
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