If we are to embrace the concept of Physical Literacy, then it should be viewed not as an end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual
” There is a lack of any empirical evidence related to PL. And this is undermined by the fact that nobody can agree what it means. So, all of the claims should be treated as conjectural. In practice, the claims made about PL and health are based entirely on claims made about fundamental movement skills and health”. (Richard Bailey)
We can view health and wellbeing as a dynamic constant changing state that is multidimensional in nature. While research has largely supported the idea of physical activity as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially, we lack the direct empirical evidence connecting the concept of physical literacy with health outcomes. Therefore, the only way that physical literacy can influence health outcomes is via its impact on physical activity, where rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts invite different opportunities or affordances for action. 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 be positioned in order to take in to account various multi-level biological psychological, social, cultural, historical and environmental influences. If we are to embrace the notion of Physical Literacy, it should not be viewed as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual
Physical Literacy is not a new term, it has been referenced as early as the 1900’s and again in the 1950’s (Corbin, 2016, p.15). The term has gained increased attention within physical education, sport and public health literature, evolving to mean different things to different people in different contexts (Young, O’Connor & Alfrey, 2019). Broadly speaking ‘literacy’ means becoming educated (Richards, 2016, p.1). Lounsbery and McKenzie (2015) identified the similarity of the terms “physically literate” and “physically educated” and, from a definitional perspective, found little difference. Hardman (2011) suggested that a physically educated person is a physically literate person. Often referred to in metaphor form, likening movement fluency with language literacy (Jurbala, 2015), the term physical literacy has lacked a clear theoretical foundation, enabling various interpretations and definitions of the term. Young, O’Connor and Alfrey (2019) have suggested that over time, it is likely that physical literacyhas progressively evolved into something it originally was not. 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).
Despite lacking direct empirical evidence connecting it to health outcomes (Cairney et al., 2019), many involved in youth sports programming, policy making and physical education are rallying around physical literacy and promoting it globally (Young, O’Connor & Alfrey, 2019; Jurbala, 2015).
Physical education in the United Kingdom provided the platform for the emergence of the original conceptualisation of physical literacy (Whitehead, 2001). Margaret Whitehead first discussed the term in a 1993 paper (Whitehead 1993, August). More recently she has defined physical literacy as ‘the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and engage in physical activity for life’ (IPLA, 2017). As a concept it has gained traction in recent years in both academic and nonacademic domains (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017) and has been adopted into sport systems in North America (Roetert & Jefferies, 2014). It has been highlighted as an important component of physical activity and sports programs, often underpinned by the assumption that sport represents an ideal means for positive development among youth. While research has largely supported sport as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially, leading to success within sport and other domains in life (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017), it should also be understood that participation in sport does not necessarily guarantee positive outcomes (Fraser- Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2005).
Publications on physical literacy are often produced by government funded organisations and departments (Lynch, 2019, p.78), and in general are underpinned by the strong correlation in the research evidence between health and physical activity (Lynch, 2013). Interestingly, children in countries that promote physical literacy (USA) are according to Curran (2014) “among the unhealthiest in the world” (UNICEF, 2007), which suggests how the concept of physical literacy is implemented may be a form of reactive panic rather than proactive, strategic forward planning (Lynch, 2019, p.50).So, while the concept of physical literacy is beginning to become part and parcel of many national physical education programs, what is not so clear is how practitioners might be advised to deliver its well-meaning aims (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018).
Despite lacking empirical evidence how it can be employed to stimulate participation or be a functional basis for activity programs, interest in physical literacy among sport and physical activity practitioners and policy makers continues to rapidly grow (Jurbala, 2015). In the Netherlands physical literacy has been promoted as a stepping stone to elite performance (Way et al., 2014, p. 23), while in Canada as “the cornerstone of both participation and excellence in physical activity and sport” (Way et al., 2014, p. 23). In the UK physical literacy has been described as an aim that every child needs to achieve (Sport England, Strategy, 2016), framing physical literacy as a set of capabilities or achievements. This can be seen in the stage- based models of motor development that underpin many government sports policy programs. These policies are seemingly grounded in the hypothesis of a causal chain of increased motor skill, where early mastery of fundamental movement skills (FMS) are viewed as a prerequisite for increased activity, development of complex sport skills or improved physical fitness. However, Holfelder and Schott (2014) argued that while high levels of FMS relate to higher levels of physical activity among children, they are of low predictive value for level of activity in adults. They further suggested that there is a need to consider the multifactorial complexity of development of movement skills such as, perceived competence, socio-economic status and others (Holfelder & Schott, 2014, p. 389).
Physical Literacy: What’s in a Name
In a commentary on physical activity and health (2016), Thomas L. McKenzie and Monica A. F. Lounsberyreferred to a lack of consensus with regard to what constitutes physical literacy. If international physical activity/fitness experts are uncertain what physical literacy is, how can we expect policy makers, school teachers, coaches and the public to clearly define it? McKenzie and Lounsbery (2016, p. 1) asked the question “What’s in a name? Is physical literacy simply a rose by any other name?”.They argue that, as many cannot discriminate among terms such as physical activity, physical fitness, and physical education, adding yet another term (physical literacy) may only add to the confusion
Physical Literacy: What’s in a Metaphor
This metaphor of likening movement literacy with language literacy (Jurbala, 2015), is in itself problematic. It has promoted in the media the notion that children should be taught physical literacy in the same way that they learn to read and write (see here). Designed to appeal to educators and policy makers (Jurbala, 2015), the metaphor arguably captures the dumbing down of the concept of physical literacy, something which Almond (2013) has criticised. Like click bait to capture public attention, the metaphor also positions physical literacy as a testable and measurable phenomenon which seemingly influences how it is being carried out in practice. This highlights a tendency to over-simplify, by promoting the view of body-as-object (Lloyd, 2012) using generic assessments of physical literacy (Tremblay & Lloyd, 2010), that reflect the traditional standardised testing of reading and writing. Lundvall and Tidén (2013) identified similar conflicts with physical literacy in practice in the Swedish PE curriculum, noting the need for approaches to move away from the traditional normative assessment where students are catagorised, towards the development of embodied knowledge, where learners learn to reflect on their development and potential.
Different Perspectives on Physical Literacy
Definitions of physical literacy have seemingly resulted in an oversimplification of the concept (Whitehead, 2010), bringing about an unsatisfactory reductionist application of physical literacy in practical settings (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018). For example, physical education content being based primarily on the development of fundamental movement skills and little else. In the light of this, Almond (2013) called for a broader discussion to clarify what is implied by associating fundamental movement skills with physical education. However, some value has been placed on Whitehead ‘s own definition (Edwards et al. 2017),which has been refined over the years from its original definition in 2001.
As appropriate to each individual’s endowment, physical literacy can be described as a disposition to capitalize on the human embodied capability, wherein the individual has the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for maintaining purposeful physical pursuits/activities throughout the life course. (Whitehead, 2013, p. 29)
According to Allan and colleagues (2017), physical literacy can be viewed from two different perspectives: (i) The holistic approach (Whitehead, 2001), and (ii) the performance- orientatedapproach, where physical literacy principles are implemented within the programming of curriculums for national sports organisations (Higgs, 2010). Whitehead’s holistic approach (2001) to physical literacy conceptualises all human conditions as an integrated whole, focusing on the embodied dimension of human existence through enriching experience (Whitehead, 2007).This promoted the notion of embodiment, emphasising the inextricable relationship between mind and body, thus rejecting the Cartesian view of mind and body as separate entities. In contrast the delivery of physical literacy within North American sport programming focused almost exclusively on the body and performance (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018). Whitehead took the stance that human potential can be achieved through rich interactions between the individual and the environmentand sport represents just one context in which embodied capacities are both challenged and celebrated (Whitehead, 2001, 2007). So, physical literacy should be seen as a journey (Green et al. 2018) extending beyond sport and physical education, throughout an individual’s lifespan (Whitehead and Murdoch, 2006)
The performance-oriented approach that has seemingly been favoured by governing bodies, is concerned with the mastery of movement skills as building blocks for more complex skills throughreductionism and thedecontextualisation of movements from the environment (e.g., Lloyd, 2011).It has been suggested that this approach aligns closely with the concept of deliberate practice(Allan, TurnnidgeandCôté, 2017).As suggested by Roberts, Newcombe and Davids (2018), these reductionist approaches, with an over-reliance on fundamental movement skills have been a barrier to the development of a complex dynamic and embodied understanding of the individual physical literacy journey. Whitehead’s (2007) holistic approach argued for a move away from these types of curriculaand strategies, promoting diverse interactions with the environment delimited by individual constraints, cultural norms and opportunities to interact with the environment (Whitehead, 2013).
Health and physical activity
This strong correlation between health and physical activity in the research is influential in how policy makers construct their programs in response to various health problems. For instance, Quennerstedt, Burrows and Maivorsdotter (2010) suggested that Health Education is guided by obesity discourses, which is now recognised as a world-wide problem (Cale & Harris, 2019). Anarina Murillo and David B. Allison (2016)when contributing to a discussion on obesity asked the question: “Are there any successful policies and programs to fight overweight and obesity? (2016)”. They argued that public policies dealing with this matter despite the best of intentions, might have limited success if these programs do not take in to account the social norms, values and culture of the targeted community. This, as highlighted by Rogers and Collins (2012), signifies a need to determine which programs have proven successful and for whom. So, despite many efforts at the local, national, and international levels, there is little evidence that existing programs are both effective and sustainable.
Lynch and Soukup (2016) have previously highlighted a problem regarding physical education practice and policies. They argued that many discourses have been underpinned by the idea of the “body as an object”, an ideology that has been referred to as ‘healthism’. This has led to the perception of health problems as individual problems that can be unproblematically dealt with through individual effort and discipline (Crawford, 1980), while failing to recognise the social and environmental influences. It has previously been argued that healthism can form a belief that caused guilt for those who do not fit the “exercise = fitness = health idea (Kirk & Colquhoun, 1989).
Health andPhysical Literacy
In 2012, Vandorpe et al. (2012) claimed that there is no direct empirical test of the effect of physical literacy on health. However, in recent years there seems to be increasing interest in physical literacy in the field of public health [Dudley, Cairney, Kriellaars, Mitchell, 2017]. Cairney and colleagues (2019) presented a model of physical literacy as a determinant of health, with the aim ofstimulatingincreased discussion and further empirical research.They identified a need to open up to a broader perspective regarding the links between education and health at a population level. The example question they posed; “what community-based infrastructure is needed to support diverse and meaningful movement-based experiences for children?”- echoes the need for a more holistic and culturally sensitive approach to the implementation of physical literacy in government funded programs.
Acknowledging that health behaviour is closely related to social and cultural factors” (Ruskin, Fitzgibbon, & Harper, 2008), recognises the interactions between many dimensions (physical, social, emotional and mental) and that health is dynamic, a constantly changing state (QSCC, 1999). Therefore, when promoting wellbeing it has been proposed that we need to view it as multidimensional in nature (OECD, 2017). This implies that curriculums (and strategies) regarding youth development, need to be connected to the child’s world and everyday interests (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer, 2015), “where children are learning through their interactions, as well as adopting and working through the rules and values of their own cultural group” (Arthur et al., 2015, pp. 99–100).
We can view health and wellbeing as a dynamic constant changing state that is multidimensional in nature. While research has largely supported the idea of physical activity as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially (Lynch, 2013), we lack the direct empirical evidence connecting physical literacy with health outcomes (Cairney et al., 2019). Therefore, the only way that physical literacy can influence health outcomes is via its impact on physical activity, where rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts invite different opportunities or affordances for action. Physical literacy as suggested by Jurbala (2015), should be viewed as an avenue to reject traditional approaches to skill development, where it has often been viewed as a brief window of opportunity instead of as a journey throughout a lifespan that extends beyond organised sports and physical education.Therefore, we should view ‘skill learning’ as a dynamic and developmental phenomenon, where, as argued by Clarke (1995, p.173), “we understand that we cannot limit our focus to one period in the life span, or to tasks that are not rich in context and complexity and real in their adaptive significance. Motor skill behaviour changes over a life span and it is that window that ultimately provides the view”.
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 learner’s 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, 2014). This calls for a shift in perspectives, from ‘fundamental’ to ‘functional’. From the pursuit of the reductionist application of physical literacy (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018), to one which facilitates the emergence of greater functional relationships between the learner/individual and the environment (Renshaw & Chow, 2018).
- There is a lack the direct empirical evidence connecting physical literacy with health outcomes
- Despite this, interest in physical literacy among sport and physical activity practitioners and policy makers continues to rapidly grow.
- What is not so clear is how practitioners might be advised to deliver its well-meaning aim
- The metaphor of likening physical literacy with language literacy is problematic. This has positioned physical literacy as a testable and measurable phenomenon which influences how it is being carried out in practice.
- This has led to an oversimplification of the concept bringing about an unsatisfactory reductionist application of physical literacy in practical settings with an over reliance stage- based models
- This has been a barrier to the development of a complex dynamic and embodied understanding of the individual physical literacy journey.
- Despite lacking direct empirical evidence, many involved in youth sports programming, policy making and physical education are rallying around physical literacy and promoting it globally.
- For physical literacy to influence health outcomes it needs to impact on physical activity,
- Sports governing bodies, policy makers, sports clubs, coaches and coach education need to promote and facilitate rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts that invite different opportunities or affordances for action.
- Physical Literacy should not be viewed as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual
Quiz question: Who had a huge hit with a cover of this song?
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