How to Encourage Physical Literacy in Young Children


physical literacy

Parents and educators both have a vested interest in children’s literacy. One form of literacy that has become increasingly important as childhood obesity rates have climbed is physical literacy. Physical literacy is the mastering of essential movement skills and object control skills that permit a child to read their environment and make appropriate decisions. By extension, this can enable them to move confidently and command a broad range of situations that involve physical activity, and hopefully, encourage exercise and activity as they age.

The At-Risk Youth

Children are often resourceful by nature, and it’s true that they fall into exercise and physical activity through play time and by virtue of being active and curious youngsters. Despite this, children who are less inclined to engage in physical activity or who are not exposed to structured physical activity could  eventually  become less  competent and less confident movers as their peers. This is where physical literacy becomes a critical skill for early childhood educators to teach young children

A lack of physical literacy can be devastating. When children do not feel confident in their skills or abilities, they are less inclined to nurture their own development. In order for at-risk children to develop the skills needed to engage in physical activity, they must be taught physical activity skills.  

Development and Physical Literacy

Physical Literacy can be achieved using both structured and unstructured activity.

Structured activity is planned and directed. It is designed for a child’s  developmental level.  It is organized activity with an instructional purpose.  Unstructured activity is  self-directed.  It occurs as children explore their environment. It is an opportunity for children to make up games, rules,and play with others.

Physical literacy should be taught developmentally in various stages so that children gradually harness their skills before they progress forward.

In teaching physical literacy, it is crucial to start at fundamental movement levels. As children grow and develop, their muscles and surrounding tissue strengthen, eventually granting them greater control of their bodies. There is a reason why toddlers movements seem unstable. Because young children do not yet have mature enough brain function to control the movements of their bodies, they are unable to coordinate certain movements. One must recognize there is a wide range of motor development between birth and age 7. While some children can achieve success at a skill such as skipping by age 4, there are others who may not achieve success until age 7.

Early Childhood (3-5 and for some to age 7) is the perfect time to teach fundamental basic locomotor and object control skills. Locomotor skills include the basic skills of walking, running, hopping, jumping, side-sliding, leaping and skipping. Object control skills include rolling, tossing, throwing, catching, kicking, and striking. It is important to note that children do not come into this world with the innate knowledge of these skills. these basic locomotor and object control skills must be taught.  Early childhood educators should not try to achieve movement perfection at this age, but exposing young children to opportunities to develop movement skills,  hand-eye coordination,  and foot-eye coordination. When children practice these skills, their level of comfort and confidence increases and their fear decreases.

While young children’s movement and skills develop naturally, there are tools and resources that can help progress the process.

SHAPE America recommends, “Preschoolers should be encouraged to develop competence in fundamental motor skills that will serve as the building blocks for future motor skillfulness and physical activity.“ Therefore, it would be not be recommended that preschoolers engage in organized games or sports because they have not yet developed basic locomotor skills or object control skills that would make the experience successful.  Rather, preschoolers would learn to self toss and catch fluffballs while engaging in an activity such as  catching and counting.

It is important to recognize that lessons and equipment be age appropriate.

The SPARK Early Childhood Physical Activity Program (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids) recommends age appropriate equipment that is colorful, lighter, larger, and easier to track for preschoolers along with academically integrated age appropriate lessons to promote physical activity. Music brings life to a physical activity session for young learners as they are naturally drawn to age appropriate movement music.

As children grow and mature, it is important to remember that if a child can’t master skills like running or catching, they are less likely to participate not only in organized sports, but even be included in unorganized play at recess or after school. By exposing  young children to structured physical activity , children are not only building physical skills – they are also building confidence.

Early Childhood is a time of discovery and growth, and with the health and confidence of children at stake, it is critical that children enjoy movement and play. What advice do you have for teaching children about physical literacy? Share your comments in the feedback section below!