Lindsay, A. 2020, What Is Physical Literacy? | Early Start, Active for Life, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, IP
kids on scooter

What is Physical Literacy?

Physical literacy is the “motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life”

-International Physical Literacy Association

Most of us are familiar with the term language literacy. It means we are able to use our language actively and passively in a variety of ways including reading, writing, and speaking. Similarly, the term physical literacy means that we are able to move our bodies with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities across multiple environments (1).

Physical literacy is important to all of us, all across the lifespan from infant to older adults. Infants are just learning to crawl, walk and hold items whereas older adults are trying to preserve their ability to lift, reach and bend to help maintain their independence and perform activities of daily living as they age. And while physical literacy looks different at every age of the lifecycle, for young children it is focused on gaining independence to become healthy, active adolescents.

Studies show that skilled preschoolers make active adolescents!

The Young Child and Physical Literacy

A young child who is physically literate is one who has the motivation confidence, knowledge, skills, and fitness necessary to enjoy a physically active lifestyle AND who is committed to healthy habitual movement behaviors, including recommended regular physical activity and limited sedentary behavior (2).

This includes factors like:

  • Physical Activity - body movement that enhances health and increases energy expenditure
  • Physical Fitness - muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and cardio endurance
  • Fundamental Movement Skills - building blocks for basic movement such as balance, locomotor (run, jump, hop, skip), non-locomotor (twist, spin, bend, lift, swinging), and object control (throw, catch, kick)
  • Perceptual Motor Development - hand-eye coordination (hitting a baseball), spatial awareness (moving high, low, forward, backward), brain to body connection (right hand touches left knee), and speed (fast vs slow)
  • Capacity - knowledge, competency and understanding
  • Motivation - enthusiasm to try new activities and be active on a daily basis
  • Confidence - self-reliance and assuredness that she is able

Factors that Influence Physical Literacy

While there are barriers to language literacy such as developmental, education, limited exposure, socio-economic, family upbringing, etc., there are also barriers to physical literacy. Many factors can limit a child’s ability to live a healthy active life such as genetic makeup, gender, ethnicity or race. Maybe families have certain stigmas or societal norms about playing sports (e.g. “girls shouldn’t play ball”). Some children may not come from athletic or active families that support their interest. Children may have economic limitations and some activities are expensive (uniforms, registration, transportation, etc.). Others may have chronic conditions such as asthma or visual or hearing disabilities. Weather conditions or how far a child lives from the park or playground can be a barrier. Or maybe the playgrounds and parks aren’t perceived by the parent as safe. All of these conditions or limitations can hinder a child’s ability to be a healthy, active adolescent.

What Can I Do?

  • Provide planned activities with a specific goal or purpose in mind. Planned activity lessons have been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity in children; find fun and engaging ways to reinforce fundamental movement skills and perceptual motor development
  • Expose children to a variety of opportunities including those outside traditional sports (such as dance, skateboarding, rollerblading or gymnastics) to help them find activities they enjoy. Avoid early specialization (limiting a young child to one sport) as it can cause related stress. Try as many activities that the child is excited about. Be creative with children who have limitations. Studies have shown that even though children with disabilities and chronic illness aren’t “able”, they are often more highly motivated than their healthy peers.
  • Support the child’s interests. Avoid the simple “go out and play” approach. Instead, be a role model. Engage in activities with the child and include the whole family. Even if you aren’t athletic, children love to compete with adults and it’s ok if they win!
  • Look for available free and discounted community resources (such as after school programs, Boys and Girls Club, Parks and Rec Centers, YMCA, 4-H, etc.)
  • Create indoor opportunities such as dancing and playing games if safety and weather are a concern.
girl kicking
Physical literacy is a journey that everyone takes throughout their life. It is not something one does or does not have, nor something one does or does not do. It is the individual’s lived experience of physical activity (2).


  1. Physical Literacy in the United States: A Model, Strategic Plan and Call to Action. The Aspen Institute Project Play.
  2. Longmuir & Tremblay (2016). Top 10 Research Questions Related to Physical Literacy. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. VOL. 87, NO. 1, 28–35

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