Physical Literacy: Does My Child Have the Right Physical Skills?

Kids in swimming pool, photo by Hoby Finn
Knowing how to swim is one component of physical literacy.. Photo: Hoby Finn

Across the United Kingdom and Canada, sports and health professionals promote the value of physical literacy for kids. Wherever you live, making sure your child is physically literate is important. Achieving this goal means she can try and enjoy many kinds of sports and activities—in both childhood and adulthood. In some areas, physical literacy has become the goal of physical education classes in school.

Physical literacy includes basic movement skills, but it also goes beyond that to cover physical awareness and even knowledge of, and attitude toward, sports and physical activity. So a child who is physically literate not only has the skills, he has lots of opportunities to use them, and he's confident about them too. It's a virtuous cycle, because each of these supports and encourages the others.

Proponents of the physical literacy concept break the movement skills into four categories:

  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Speed

These form the foundation for locomotor skills, such as running, jumping, and even swimming, skating, and riding a bike. They are also necessary for sports skills related to sending and receiving objects, like throwing a ball or striking it with a racquet, catching a ball with the hands or a lacrosse stick, pushing a puck with a hockey stick, and so on.

These basic skills can be used for physical activities in four environments kids should experience:

  • Ground: most games, sports, physical activities, dance
  • Water: aquatic activities like swimming and water polo
  • Snow and ice: skating, skiing, sledding and so on
  • Air: activities such as gymnastics, trampoline, and diving

How can I test my child's physical literacy?

Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) has developed a set of assessment tools that schools, coaches, teachers, physical therapists, parents, and even kids themselves can use to better understand a child's level of physical activity.

For example, using the parent tool, you would give your child (age 7 and up) a grade on how well she performs skills including running and using her hands to throw or carry an object. You would also look at general abilities, like whether she is aware of where her body is relative to others and whether both sides of her body (left and right) are equally strong and capable.

But the assessments aren't just checklists of skills. They also ask you to consider how often your child participates in physical activities (indoors, outdoors, in the water). Does she understand movement terms, like "skip," "glide," or "gallop"? Is she motivated to participate in physical activities, either by herself or in a group? Does she understand that physical activity is important for health and wellness? Is she willing to try new sports or games? These are all indicators of physical literacy.

You can also ask your child (age 7 and up) to perform these simple tests. They give you an idea of how developed some of her physical skills are.

If you have any concerns, speak to her physical education teacher or ask her doctor if she needs a referral to a physical or occupational therapist.

  • Forward roll (aka somersault): Balance, flexibility, proprioception
  • Squat (start in standing position, move into a squat, return to standing): Balance, coordination, flexibility, strength
  • Stand on one foot: Balance, strength

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