Centennial Reader Archive

Teaching Physical Literacy

physical literacy

By Dwayne Sheehan and Larry Katz

Introduction Over the course of the last decade, a shifting focus in undergraduate physical education (PE) teacher education has coincided with the move away from PE specialist teachers in elementary schools. The reasons for both are related to the perceived significance of PE in schools by the public and its leadership. While both issues are complex and not wholly related, the end result is that there has been less emphasis on PE pedagogy (the profession of teaching PE). Advocates of PE have an opportunity to mobilize with the emergence of a worldwide concept called physical literacy (PL). Understanding PL can help enhance the profile and importance of quality daily PE in schools. History of Physical Literacy Margaret Whitehead is largely responsible for the development of the philosophical groundwork and rationale of PL. Her work was primarily based on her holistic perspective of people, one where the body and mind were not considered separate.1 Whitehead’s2 definition of PL includes four key elements:

  1. The ability and motivation to capitalize on a capacity to move to make a significant contribution to quality of life, subject to the culture in which we live and the physical abilities with which we are endowed.
  2. Movement with poise, economy and confidence in a wide variety of physically challenging situations with the ability to anticipate and adapt to the physical environment.
  3. A well-established sense of self and the ability to express oneself through non-verbal communication.
  4. The ability to identify and communicate the elements that influence one’s own performance, and an understanding of health with respect to basic aspects such as exercise, sleep, and nutrition.

Everyone is capable of achieving PL. No matter how limited an individual’s capacities, such as those with a physical impairment, any increase in PL will have a marked effect on quality of life. Capacities such as agility, balance, coordination, flexibility, speed, strength, power, rhythm, spatial awareness, and endurance are unique to each individual. PL reinforces the importance of a holistic perspective and guides physical educators in their effort to help children develop a positive attitude about physical activity (PA) and healthy lifestyle choices. A Canadian Perspective of PL The proposed definition of PL for Canadian physical educators is intended to bridge the perceived philosophical gap between the objectives of sport and PE. Physical and Health Education Canada (PHE Canada) abbreviated the definition of PL to, “Individuals who are physically literate move with competence in a wide variety of physical activities that benefit the development of the whole person”.3 This definition is intentionally flexible to allow for personalized proficiency during the process of skill acquisition. It also addresses the development of the whole child from the perspective of the physical, cognitive, social, and affective domains.4 There are many other similar and relevant definitions, such as the Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) version which reads, “PL is defined as the development of fundamental movement skills [the building blocks for more complex skill acquisition] and fundamental sport skills that permit a child to move confidently and with control, in a wide range of physical activities, as well as rhythmic (dance), and sport situations.”5 Regardless of which definition is followed, children should be exposed to a wide variety of activities, but they should also experience those activities in a variety of settings. Physical Literacy in School Arguably, the most important objective of any PE program is to instil a positive attitude about health and PA in every child. The pure simplicity of having a positive, personally rewarding experience over a dozen years of PE classes is not always provided to every child in every school. A quality PE program coupled with a balanced lifestyle at home opens up a world of active opportunities in much the same way that learning to read and write does. Language literacy and numeracy are two core measures of success in any school district; equally important is the pursuit of PL that stems from having an enriching PE experience. A quality, daily, elementary school PE program coordinated by trained teaching specialists is the foundation for children to establish competency in basic movement patterns.6 Passionate and qualified teachers with well-designed elementary school PE programs that offer age-appropriate activities in a nurturing environment will provide children with the opportunity to discover their fundamental movement skills (FMS) potential. Physical education should focus on providing opportunities for individuals to discover their own potential. Essentially, to become physically literate, children need to be able to perform basic movements (within their own physical capacity), apply these in various situations, understand how they can learn more, and have the internal motivation to be independently active.7 Mastery of FMS has been shown to be an important factor in preventing unhealthy habits among children and youth.8 The development of these basic skills is dependent on the ability of physical educators to balance two major considerations: (1) the difficulty of the task9, and (2) the skill level of the learner.10 Balance between these two concepts is an important aspect in the development of intrinsic motivation to participate in PA. The strong connection between childhood motor skill development and PA confidence and success throughout a lifetime requires that PE teachers must instruct with that connection in mind. Specifically, teachers must (1) teach with an emphasis on building movement confidence and competence; (2) begin as early as preschool; (3) emphasize individual progress and qualitative, rather than quantitative performance; (4) relate physical skills to play opportunities and other activities outside of class time; (5) make real connections between fundamental skills and participation in a variety of culturally valued sport, recreation, and leisure activities; and (6) weave physical skill development into the fabric of daily school life.11 An optimal physical education setting should use a variety of instructional strategies and innovative equipment to ensure children have the opportunity to explore and experiment without risk. A child-centred approach to early childhood movement experiences will provide the best opportunity to explore movement potential.12 Even though motor development is the primary contribution of PE, knowledge, skills, and understanding of body awareness, enjoyment, and expression are all related to the holistic development of children. Therefore, the global nature of physical development requires consideration of the social and psychological elements when planning and teaching children’s physical activities.13 Developing Physical Literacy Professionals in Undergraduate Education Teacher education is in a constant state of improvement and the shifting priorities are often reflected in university teacher preparation. Metzler sarcastically suggested that the reform in teacher education is never ending.14 He noted that every theory or model that has ever been thought of has been tried—from standards-based, to performance-based, to evidence-based; from lengthening programs to abbreviating them, to bypassing them; from traditional pathways to countless alternative pathways; from too much pedagogy to almost no pedagogy; from doing teacher education on campus, online, in professional development schools, and every place in between. When comparing beginner and experienced educators, researchers in the field of pedagogy have identified a number of characteristics that describe teaching expertise. The most proficient teachers tend to realize the needs of individual learners, have established and efficient classroom routines, use practical and dynamic long-term and medium-term plans, minimize transition time, embed assessment into daily instruction, present clear and concise content to students in a way they can comprehend, and personally evaluate their success or shortcomings on a regular basis.15 Unfortunately, many students enrolled in teacher education programs feel insufficiently trained for their chosen careers and often question their educational preparation.16 Macdonald & Kirk stated that there is a disconnect between the curriculum practices of higher education and the teaching of children in the schools.17 Without a basic understanding of content knowledge, it is difficult to imagine how any novice teacher could develop expertise in a vibrant discipline like PE. University PE programs are as diverse and unique as their department names. The term kinesiology describes the discipline and is regarded as an umbrella term that encompasses various professions and academic studies including PE, exercise science, sport and recreation, and outdoor education. Fostering PL should be the objective of every undergraduate kinesiology program. PL professionals who aspire to lead, organize, or coach will be well prepared if they understand and promote the concept. Marsden and Watson suggested that

a starting point must be high-quality elementary school physical education specialist teacher training that responds to the personal needs of the child; that reflects and celebrates a diversity of cultural and social values; that is embedded in the daily lives and experiences of all children; that does not acknowledge gender-specific qualities; that is concerned with the physical and social development of all children; that focuses on facilitating confidence and self-expression in movement; that provides children with self-assurance in their own physicality; that places the teacher in the role of facilitator and catalyst; and that seeks to motivate children through the intrinsic pleasure of the physical being.18

Designing a PE undergraduate experience that embraces the philosophical, theoretical and practical elements of PL should focus on the learning and teaching approaches rather than the course content. Haydn-Davies stated that the teaching approach should evolve from the needs of the participants: focus on the learner first, focus on the learning second, and consider the activity as being the context for that learning third.19 That which is being taught is less important than how it is being taught. Many of the attributes of PL can be found in existing quality undergraduate PE programs already; however, it will be the well-designed pedagogical experiences along with the faculty commitment to the holistic nature of PL that will set the standard for excellence in the future. Nurturing PL in a kinesiology undergraduate program will provide future leaders with sound practical knowledge and qualities such as sensitivity, empathy, patience, appreciation of effort, and an encouraging and enthusiastic approach to work.20 The Assessment of Physical LiteracyAssessment should be considered to evaluate PL in order for the concept to be taken seriously by government, educators, and academics.21 Consideration for both teaching methods and student outcomes are necessary to determine successes of the PL teaching philosophy. PHE Canada is a leader in field of PE professional development and has identified four critical components of a PE program that help create an environment that cultivates the development of PL. Pre-service PE undergraduate students who are committed to embracing the philosophy of PL should regularly self-assess their practice by considering the following aspects that relate to their teacher training, based on the guidelines set forth by PHE Canada22: Planning and Design:

  • All students had equal opportunities to learn and be active (e.g., similar number of turns and touches);
  • Previously learned skills were used as building blocks to more difficult motor skills;
  • Fitness activities were designed purposefully (e.g., age appropriate and fun);
  • Traditional sports and games were modified to be more active and developmentally appropriate (e.g., smaller groups, more balls, larger boundaries, proper equipment);
  • Students (on average) were active at least 50% of lesson time; and
  • Students were encouraged to be physically active outside of class.

Environmental Management:

  • A teaching space existed that was safe and encouraged risk taking without fear of ridicule;
  • Transition times were minimized and activities flowed seamlessly;
  • A variety of teaching methods were used to motivate children;
  • Music was used to start and stop activity or inspire students; and
  • Technology aids were used strategically.


  • Instructions were clear and concise;
  • Motivating, positive, and holistic phraseology was part of a respectful learning environment;
  • Short term goals were used to promote individual improvement in students’ fitness and skills;
  • Attainable challenges were used to motivate students throughout the lesson; and
  • Cooperative behavior and good social skills were reinforced constantly.


  • I showed enthusiasm about PA and teaching;
  • Students were active right from the start of their lesson;
  • I have made a personal commitment to PL and modeled that behaviour for my students;
  • Regular self assessment and a commitment to lifelong learning are important to my teaching;
  • I am confident in the knowledge, skills and attitude that I possess to teach PL concepts; and
  • I know that every child is capable of achieving PL.

A new test battery called the Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy (CAPL) has been proposed as method of determining the achievement of outcomes associated with PL. The CAPL has four inter-related key elements that include: Physical Fitness (cardio-respiratory, muscular strength, and flexibility); Motor Behaviour (fundamental movement skill proficiency; Physical Activity Behaviours (directly measure PA); and Psycho-social / Cognitive Factors (attitudes, knowledge, and feelings).23 The validation process is ongoing for the CAPL. An international team of content experts is assisting in the development of this “made in Canada” response to the momentum of PL in the field of kinesiology. If successful, this measurement tool may help guide strategic programming, curriculum design, and government funding in an effort to combat the trend of childhood inactivity and sedentary behaviour. Conclusion Kinesiology is the discipline, physical education is the profession, and physical literacy is the desired outcome. The holistic nature of PL has introduced a new way of thinking about the professional training of leaders in the field of kinesiology. The concept of PL may not be the silver bullet, but there is significant merit in the premise of emphasizing intrinsic motivation, FMS, confidence, and positive self-esteem in all children. Physical literacy has become an international phenomenon, a concept which has encouraged many PE professionals to reflect upon their current practice of PA.

  1. Margaret Whitehead, “The Concept of Physical Literacy,” European Journal of Physical Education 6(2): 127-138.
  2. Ibid., “Physical Literacy: Philosophical Considerations in Relation to Developing a Sense of Self, Universality and Propositional Knowledge,” Sport, Ethics & Philosophy 1(3): 281-298.
  3. J.L. Mandingo and others, “Physical literacy for educators,” Physical & Health Education 75(3): 28.
  4. J.L. Mandingo and others, “Physical literacy for educators,” Physical & Health Education 75(3): 27-30.
  5. C. Higgs and others, Developing physical literacy: A guide for parents of children ages 0 to 12. (Vancouver, BC.: CS4L, 2008)
  6. D. Siedentrop, Introduction to physical education, fitness and sport (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 2001).
  7. D. Haydn-Davies, “How does the concept of physical literacy relate to what is and what could be the practice of physical education?,” British Journal of Teaching Physical Education 36(3): 45-48.
  8. Anthony D. Okley and others, “Relationships between body composition and fundamental movement skills among children and adolescents,” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 75(3): 238.
  9. John Hay and Jean Cote, “An interactive model to teach motor skills,” Physical Educator 55(1): 50-56.
  10. Okley and others, “Relationships between body composition and fundamental movement skills among children and adolescents,” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 75(3): 238.
  11. S.B. Patterson and others, “Investigating the relationship between physical skill development and active living: A review of the literature,” CAHPERD Journal 63(4): 4-9.
  12. S. Sanders and S. Stork, “What is the best way to teach young children about movement?,” Teaching Elementary Physical Education 76(1): 26-30.
  13. D. Penny and T. Chandler, “A curriculum with connections?,” British Journal of Teaching Physical Education 31(2): 37-40.
  14. Michael Metzler, “The Great Debate Over Teacher Education Reform Escalates: More Rhetoric or a New Reality?,” Journal of Teaching in Physical Education 28(3): 293-309.
  15. A.M. O’Donnell and others, Educational psychology: Reflections for action (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007).
  16. Deborah P. Britzman, “Teacher education as uneven development: toward a psychology of uncertainty,” International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice 10(1): 1-12.
  17. D. Macdonald and D. Kirk, “Pedagogy, the body and Christian identity,” Sport, Education & Society 4(2): 131-142
  18. Elizabeth Marsden and Carrie Weston, “Locating quality physical education in early years pedagogy,” Sport, Education & Society 12(4): 383-398.
  19. D. Haydn-Davies, “How does the concept of physical literacy relate to what is and what could be the practice of physical education?,” British Journal of Teaching Physical Education 36(3): 45-48.
  20. Ibid.
  21. M. Tremblay, and M. Lloyd, “Physical literacy measurement: The missing piece,” Physical & Health Education 76(1): 26-30.
  22. Physical and Health Education Canada. Physical literacy checklist 2010, http://www.phecanada.ca/programs/physical-literacy/physical-literacy-checklist. (accessed 20 December, 2010).
  23. M. Tremblay, and M. Lloyd, “Physical literacy measurement: The missing piece,” Physical & Health Education 76(1): 26-30.

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