Jul 14, 2015 • 6 min read
You may already know how important physical literacy is without even recognizing the term. Physical literacy refers to a blend of movement skills, physical awareness, cognitive understandings and general attitudes about physical activity and sport. Kids who develop it are physically competent and have the confidence to be active in many contexts and environments.
So how do you know if your child is developing physical literacy?
Although researchers who study the subject produce sophisticated tests and measures for deciding who is physically literate and who is not, Active for Life has produced a list of nine simple physical tests and questions to assess the state of your child’s physical literacy.
If you can answer yes to the nine questions below, your child is probably making good progress in developing basic physical literacy. For questions where you answer no, your child probably needs some attention in that area. And if your child is nearing middle-school age and has difficulty with these tests, there are significant skills and capacities they need to address.
Please note that this is not a comprehensive list of physical literacy attributes or testing protocols. We offer this list with a view towards giving moms and dads a quick glimpse of some of the qualities that comprise physical literacy.
Can your child do a basic forward roll on the floor? The forward roll, or somersault, is a basic gymnastic movement that demonstrates your child has developed a reasonable degree of flexibility and coordination, as well as proprioception (knowing where the body is as it moves through space). Simply understanding that they need to tuck their head to their chest is also significant in children’s basic understanding of the movement.
Can your child do a flat-footed squat from a standing position and then stand up again? This movement indicates a blend of important qualities: flexibility, coordination and balance, not to mention strength. If your child has trouble keeping his or her heels flat on the ground while descending into a squat all the way to the floor and stand up again, or if he or she loses balance and falls over in the process, your child has issues with balance as well as flexibility, coordination and strength in key muscle groups in the legs and core.
Can your child swim? Water is one of the four key environments of sport and physical activity, along with land, air and snow/ice. Swimming is the basis of a multitude of water sports ranging from competitive racing and diving to water polo and surfing, and it is also an essential skill for lifetime safety around water, which covers 75 percent of our planet’s surface.
Can your child throw a ball? It may seem simplistic, but the ability to throw a ball is a good general indicator of a person’s physical coordination and development of movement skills. This isn’t about making the pros; if you consider how essential throwing was for our distant ancestors who were hunting with spears or knocking coconuts out of trees by hurling stones, you can understand how throwing has always been a natural part of our movement skill repertoire. It involves a complicated mix of balance and coordination between dozens if not hundreds of muscles, so it’s a good indicator of how much physical literacy a child has developed to date.
Can your child hit a ball with a bat? Or a puck with a hockey stick, or a birdie with a racquet? See above; the same basic reasoning applies. Humans are distinguished from animals by our mastery of tools, and the great majority of our early tools were used to strike things. The only difference is that now we strike pucks and balls instead of other cave dwellers.
How well does your child land from jumping? Watch your child as she jumps from a low platform, tree branch or park bench and lands on her feet. Does she land with her knees aligned squarely above her feet and flex smoothly into a squat? Or do her knees collapse inward and her legs seem to go 16 directions? If your child can land a jump reasonably well, then hopping and other fundamental movement skills are also probably not a problem for them.
Can your child balance on one leg? Ask your child to stand on one foot for 30 seconds without losing balance. Ask him to put his hands on his hips and lift the knee of his non-standing leg as high as possible. Children often end up hopping all over the place and laughing because it is more difficult than it appears. The good news is that the challenge encourages them to practice and improve their time, so you are covertly promoting the development of their balance.
Is your child confident trying new sports? Kids who have a reasonable degree of physical literacy feel confident trying a sport or physical activity that is new to them. They are confident because they know they have the basic skills in running, jumping and throwing to get started. And as time passes, they build further confidence as they experience additional successes in trying these new sports and activities.
Can your child describe a movement skill or activity in words? In effect, verbal literacy is a part of physical literacy. Children who are fully physically literate should be able to describe their activity and movements accurately with the basic correct words. Why? Because words and naming used to describe movement reflect formal thinking and understanding of those same movements. It sounds a bit esoteric, but in truth it’s another good general indicator.
Did we miss something? Do you think we missed an even more important fundamental skill for testing physical literacy? Contribute to the discussion at the Active for Life Facebook page.
Jim Grove is a contributing editor with Active for Life, a nonprofit organization committed to helping parents raise happy, healthy, physically literate kids. For more articles like this one, please visit Activeforlife.com.