In part 2 of this blog, I will introduce a conceptual realignment of physical literacy that is different from the ‘business-as-usual’ concepts (see part 1), that seemingly underpin the construct in both policy and practice and even as a finally packaged product.
“Skillful interactions” refers to how a mover coordinates his/her behaviour within the performance context in relation to that environment, on the basis of not only the immediate physical and informational (i.e., situational) demands, but also on the basis of historical and cultural factors. Thus, following from Newell (1986), skillful interactions are sufficiently optimal solutions to the movement problem faced in terms of safety, efficiency and/or effectiveness for that individual at that moment in time – Phil Kierney (Footblogball,May 2018).
Such an emphasis shifts the narrative away from fundamental to functional, towards developing an adaptive ‘interactor’; considering the individual-environment fit.
Current literature contains different representations of the concept of physical literacy (Edwards et al., 2016). Due to lacking a clear theoretical foundation, it can be argued that the construct has progressively evolved into something it originally was not (Young, O’Connor and Alfrey, 2019).This adaption of numerous definitions and interpretations across different countries, disciplines and organisation (Shearer et al., 2018), has arguably led to a lack of consensus as to how to employ it in practice (Hyndman & Pill, 2018; Jurbala, 2015).
This vagueness associated with the construct reveals aneed for a comprehensive theoretical rationale to underpin how to apply the concepts and ideas from physical literacy research. One such framework that can support the physical literacy journey is the theoretical framework of ecological dynamics. It has been previously argued by Roberts, Newcombe and Davids (2018) that ecological dynamics can inform how we can evolve the concept of physical literacy, both in policy and physical education curriculum, away from the dominant traditional approaches. I argue, from this perspective, the concept of physical literacy can be enriched and extended within and beyond organised sports and physical education, through the reconceptualisation of the nature of an individual’s relationship with the specific environments they interact with over a lifespan. The establishment of an individual -environment fit across varied movement contexts over a lifespan, should therefore be a central tenet of the concept of physical literacy.
An Ecological Approach to the Concept of Physical Literacy
It has been proposed (Allan, Turnnidge and Côté, 2017) that through supporting optimal interaction of the dynamic elements (i.e., activities, relationships, and settings), the long-term outcomes of positive youth development (i.e., performance, participation, and personal development) are likely to be achieved. In other words, through development, a child’s varied movement contexts provide different opportunities or affordances for (inter)action that are fundamental to promoting motor competence (Flores et al., 2019). These contexts invite, permit or inhibit (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1993). This of course extends in to adult life and is relevant throughout a lifespan. The manifestations of the process and the outcomes (i.e., what is performance for an adult?) need to be tailored to the individual’s stage of development.
So, if the concept of physical literacy is to be woven into health education, sport and recreation, in both policy and practice, then it needs to take in to account that individual differences, movement preferences and nonlinear rates of development are as much a function of social milieu in which they have developed as their physiology, anatomy or psychology (Uehara, Button, Falcous, Davids,2014). With this in mind, we can view physical literacy, like motor skill acquisition, as a dynamic process and also a developmental process (Clarke, 1995), that should be viewed as a lifelong process (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017).
From an ecological dynamics perspective this implies that physical literacy can be understood not as an entity, but reflected in the individual- environment system subject to changing constraints, emerging as an adaptive functional relationship between the individual and his/her environment (Araújo & Davids, 2011). This calls for a shift in perspectives, from ‘fundamental’ to ‘functional’, from the reductionist interpretation of physical literacy discussed previously (see blog part 1), to one which facilitates the emergence of greater functional relationships between the learner/individual and the environment over a lifespan (Renshaw & Chow, 2018).
Ecological Dynamics as a Viable Theoretical Framework
The term ‘ecological dynamics’ captures an approach to studying human behaviour allying concepts from dynamical systems theory and ecological psychology. Dynamical systems theory offers a conceptual framework to understand the emergence of coordination tendencies within complex adaptive systems i.e., the interactions between the nervous system, body, and surrounding environment (Kelso, 1995; Seifert & Davids, 2017). Through combining it with a compatible theory of behaviour such as ecological psychology, the integrated frameowork of “ecological dynamics” was formed.
The theoretical framework of ecological dynamics helps us to understand emerging behaviour at the ecological scale of analysis (Araújo, Davids, & Hristovski, 2006), highlighting the reciprocal relationship between the individual and the environment, as elucidated in the seminal work of ecological psychologist Gibson (1966; 1979). It was Gibson (1979, p. 223) who stated “we must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive”, implying that we can view the individual and the environment as a pair of mutually coupled dynamical systems (Warren, 2006). The environment is perceived in behavioral terms, where objects, places, surfaces, events and other people, provide different opportunities for action (i.e. affordances), depending on action capabilities (Gibson, 1979). Affordances are understood as properties of the individual-environment system, scaled to each individual’s action capabilities (e.g., speed, strength), body dimensions (Davids et al., 2013),and are perceived by the individual as they learn to establish an individual-environment fit. This highlights the idea that humans perceive the environment in relation to its functionality, its meaningfulness detected in affordances, providing insights in to what they learn and know and how they decide to act (Araújo et al., 2006).
The establishment of an individual-environment fit across varied movement contexts over a lifespan should be a central tenet of the concept of physical literacy. Therefore, capturing the construct not as an as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual.From this perspective, learning a skill can be understood as the emergence of an adaptive, functional relationship between an individual and its environment (Renshaw & Chow, 2019), satisfying a unique set of interacting constraints impacting upon a system (Davids, Araujo, Vilar, Renshaw, Pinder, 2013) over a lifespan.
Constraints shape coordinative patterns within human movement acting as boundaries or limits (Clark, 1995) within which movement systems emerge (Kugler, 1986). Constraints were first categorised by Newell (1986) as individual (e.g., height, weight, speed, motivation, emotions), task (e.g., specific to the activity to be performed, goal of task) and environmental (e.g., light, facilities, social values and societal/cultural expectations). These three constraints don’t operate in isolation, they interact over varying and different timescales. Movement coordination from an ecological dynamics perspective, emerges as an emergent property from interacting individual, task and environment constraints (Seifert, Button, and Davids 2013). This implies that constraints can be manipulated and exploited to provide opportunities for actions (affordances) for behaviour to emerge.
The theoretical framework of ecological dynamics can help inform the concept of physical literacy by elucidating the individual -environment fit. This ‘fit’ is influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual, across varied movement contexts over a lifespan
Physical Literacy as an Individual-Environment Fit
From an ecological dynamics perspective the concept of physical literacy can be defined not in terms of the person or the environment, but rather as their degree of “fit”or “misfit”. The level of analysis is the reciprocal interactions between characteristics of the individual and the environment. This perspective avoids problems with definition of physical literacy as a characteristic of the individual (an organismic asymmetry, see Dunwoody, 2006; Davids and Araujo 2010), or as a characteristic of the environment. So, physical literacy can be understood as the degree to which individual and environmental characteristics match in varying contexts over a lifespan.
Both distal and proximal influences impinge on the individual-environment fit. Distal determinants (e.g. national, institutional, political, socio-cultural and socio-economical) are more stable (Flay & Petraitis, 1994), and can play an indirect influence on proximal factors (playgrounds, sports clubs, amenities, open spaces). The individual-environment fit, for better or for worse, will be reflected in the proximal environment, because of its immediacy and emotional salience to human beings (Bradley & Corwyn, 2004). With maturity the nature, type and complexity of these immediate settings change, as certain environmental affordances for movement become more inviting than others. New physical, social and cultural characteristics invite, permit or inhibit reciprocal interactions (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1993) that establish the individual-environment fit. So, while it can be understood that affordances vary with learning and development (Gibson & Pick, 2000), they are just as deeply social as they are related to abilities(Rietveld & Kiverstein 2014; Van Dijk & Rietveld, 2017). For example, in a recent blog, Justin O’Connor (January, 2020) reflected over his thesis on Fundamental Movement Skills. He argued that socio-cultural constraints might limit the opportunities for (inter)action invited to females to access contexts where they could practice the skill of the overarm throw. The simplistic idea of that if we teach the fundamental motor skill (this will develop perceived competence – this will lead to seeking out throwing games – this will lead to playing sports involving throwing), doesn’t address the socio-cultural/environmental barriers
An understanding of the individual-environment fit (or misfit) across varied movement contexts over a lifespan should, therefore, be a central tenet of the concept of physical literacy.
Physical Literacy as a Constant Changing State
Two crucial components to consider in motor behaviour and development are the body and the environment. An ecological dynamics perspective as elucidated byAraújo, Davids & Renshaw (2020) involves understanding the whole body (embodied) in close relationship with opportunities for action or affordances offered by the environment (embedded). The current status of the body and the environment affects biomechanical constraints on task performance. Adolph and colleagues (2018), suggested that when infants are learning to walk, their behaviour is shaped from moment to moment by the immediate context i.e., changes in their bodies and in their physical and social environments. This extends in to adult life and is relevant throughout a lifespan, as bodies and environments, their nature, type and complexity are continually changing. This also highlights the socio-cultural constraints that surround individuals, where experiences and attributes on a daily basis are shaped as much by the social milieu as they are by each individual’s physiology, anatomy or psychology (Uehara, et al., 2014). Physical literacy, can therefore be seen as an emergent property from interacting individual, task and environment constraints (Seifert, Button, and Davids 2013), thus accounting for changes in the individual-environment fit over a lifespan. These constraints limit or set boundaries for the system. A change in one, may result in the change in the emergent movement (Clarke, 1995), resulting in changes in the way an individual interacts with the environment. This perspective allows us to conceptualise physical literacy as a construct that changes over a lifespan. It is this window that,according to Clarke (1995), ultimately provides the view, rather than one window of opportunity.
Physical Literacy as a Construct that Changes over a Lifespan
The human body can move in many different ways, while at the same time its movement is constrained by its structural organisation. Body structure can enhance (due to growth in size) or limit (due to aging, injury) movement capabilities. From a dynamic systems perspective this acknowledges that different systems might act as rate limiters for different skills (Thelin, 1998), over different time scales, throughout an individual’s lifespan.
Environmental features offer different affordances for individuals as they are assessed in relation tous, not according to an objective standard(Konczak, 1990). Our perception of affordances an environment provides (object, surface, place or event) changes as our capability for action changes, in other words, affordances change as individuals change and therefore the nature of our physical literacy changes. This implies that environmental features are framed in terms of body scaling and action capabilities over an individual’s lifespan. For example, a child might not be ableto climb a structure due to short arms and legs. Leg and arm length would be a rate limiter. Until the child reaches a critical level of leg and arm length, the affordance of “climbability” is not perceived. The nature, type and complexity of the settings change as certain environmental affordances for movement (climbing) become more inviting than others. Perception of affordances changes as capability for action changes.
One of the key features of practice task design in sport from an ecological dynamics perspective, is to design ‘in’ affordances (Chow et al, 2016) that can enhance the opportunity for individuals to develop stable functional perception-action couplings to support performance. These key concepts can extend beyond organised sports and physical education. For example, in urban planning and recreation, through the designing ‘in’ of rich opportunities or affordances for action, we can support diverse and meaningful movement-based experiences, across varied movement contexts, throughout life. Recently, the UN World Population Prospects report (2019) revealed that the global population of older people is growing at an unprecedented rate. Evidence points to a positive correlation between older adults’ physical activity and well-being (Nimrod 2011). Therefore, cities in particular must adjust (manipulation of environmental constraints) if older people are to maintain quality of life. In a Guardian interview (2016), Stefano Recalcati, project leader behind the report ‘Shaping Ageing Cities’ (2015), based on 10 European case studies, explains that cities must adjust if older people are to maintain quality of life: “It’s important to be conscious of the ageing trend. It is a huge challenge for world cities – they will need to change, to make sure older people continue to play an active role in the community and don’t become isolated. Isolation has a negative impact on health so tackling that is really important.”From an ecological dynamics perspective this is about addressing accessibility. Exploiting the ‘invitational’ nature of environmental affordances through deliberate design, has the potential to offer different opportunities for action to increase (or maintain) healthy behavior over a lifespan (Withagen & Caljouw, 2016). How can we design ‘in’ affordances into landscapes that can enhance the opportunity for an aging population to evolve their ‘own’ physical literacy through establishing an individual-environment fit across varied movement contexts to support their active role in the community and maintain quality of life?
Addressing accessibility is an issue for people of all ages. For instance, the ubiquitous “No Ball Playing” signs in modern urban settings give a clear signal to children and are certainly not invitations. We can even consider modern town/city planning projects. Anna Lind (2019), the Swedish Minister for Sports, took this to task from a child’s rights perspective in Swedish national newspaper Dagens Nyheter. She asked, when new homes are built, how often is the child’s opportunity to interact with the immediate environment (e.g. recreation areas) considered and designed ‘in’ to the planning?
The vagueness associated with the construct of physical literacy as revealed in the literature (Bailey, Glibo & Koenen, 2019) elucidates aclear need for a comprehensive theoretical rationale to underpin how to apply the concepts and ideas from physical literacy research. I have argued, from an ecological dynamics perspective, the concept of physical literacy can be enriched and extended both in and beyond organised sports and physical education, through thereconceptualisationof the nature of an individual’s relationship with the specific environmental settings they interact with over a lifespan. This relationship can be understood through the assessment of available affordances for motor skills in those certain settings (Flôres et al., 2019), underpinned by how these contexts invite, permit or inhibit (Bronfenbrenner, Ceci, 1993) an individual-environment fit. Physical literacy can therefore be understood at the level of the individual-environment system, where the dynamic and reciprocal relationships between an individual and their environment can be analysed (Seifert, Orth, Button, Brymer, & Davids, 2017).
The theoretical framework of ecological dynamics can enrich the concept of physical literacy by helping us to analyse the emerging behaviours of humans in ever-changing environments, influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints, throughout a lifespan. The establishment of an individual -environment fit across varied movement contexts over a lifespan, should therefore be a central tenet of the concept of physical literacy.
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