Physical Literacy: What is your flavour?

“Now what happens when you take a system apart, it loses all of its essential properties and therefore when you take a situation and by analysis reduce it to the problems of which it is composed you have lost all the essential properties of reality and essential properties of the parts.” – Russell Ackoff

Physical Literacy:

There appears to be a growing movement towards physical literacy (PL) being a legitimate ‘key performance indicator’ to work towards achieving in England. Sport England set out in their Towards an Active Nation Strategy that they want an “increase in the percentage of children achieving physical literacy“. In March of this year analysis from the Active Lives Children and Young People Survey  revealed “Physically literate children do twice as much activity. The more of the five elements of physical literacy – enjoyment, confidence, competence, understanding and knowledge – children have, the more active they are.” Tim Hollingsworth, CEO of Sport England, after the success of Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson in the recent Athletics World Championships, promoted that children should be taught “physical literacy” in the same way they learn to read and write.

Policy makers and policy influencers are using the term more often in policy documents and in the media. By advocating its potential power as a concept of change, it won’t be long till it filters its way into the day to day language in PESA, shaping thinking, curriculum and practices. In recent weeks I have been into schools to observe trainee PE teachers and assisting with PE departments in refining their curriculum intent. It is already being used, and is being used in many different ways. Just like with anything that becomes popular and adopted across different cultures and contexts you get different meanings and practical applications. PL is a concept that has many different flavours, but what is yours?

The Whiteheadian Flavour:

The original flavour developed by Margret Whitehead, expanded in her book Physical Literacy: Throughout the Lifecourse and adopted by the International Physical Literacy Association. Described “as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life”, it is an observable disposition which is a rich mixture of existential, monist and phenomenological philosophy focusing on the embodiment individual and understanding their own capabilities.

The Motor Competence Flavour:

This is essentially fundamental movement skills rebranded as physical literacy. There is no doubt that motor competence is one of many drivers of future physical activity and FMS development helps to contribute to that. As David Stoddard and colleagues hypothesised development of motor skill competence is a primary underlying mechanism that promotes engagement in physical activity. However ‘FMS as PL’ is a bland flavour of both what motor competence and physical literacy entail and offer.

The Pragmatic Flavour:

This is where the Whiteheadian concept of PL has been deconstructed into set of competencies or a toolkit. It then gives teaches, coaches and other practitioners in the field of PESA a check list of techniques or skills to develop, in the hope of helping people lead a physically active lifestyle. Playtools is an example of this and is practically applicable to the PE context but is still a watered down flavour missing out on the cognitive and affective elements and related skill sets needed to enhance PL.

The Political Flavour:

Cairney and colleagues take the work of Stodden and replace motor competence with physical literacy as a driver of physical activity and makes physical, mental and social health the outcome. Rather than seeing physical literacy as an outcome, it becomes a lever to promote positive health goals. This is more likely to shape policy and change practice as policy makers are more likely to understand positive health as an outcome to pursue than PL.

The Ecological Flavour:

Paul Jurbala in his excellent “What is Physical Literacy, Really?” takes the literacy metaphor further than just ABCs required for effective movement, expanding on it so it to see movement as a form of communication. A dynamic communication between the embodied self and the physical environment where reading is seen as perceiving the environment and writing is seen as moving in the environment.

The Movement Flavour:

Building on the initial work by Whitehead, Oyvind Standal proposes a pedagogical model called movement literacy. The learning outcomes of this model are described as being capable of moving with poise and being perceptive in reading and writing the movement environment. Its focus is less on on the matter of specific activities, but more on how the activities are practised.

So what’s your flavour?

These are just some of the flavours of physical literacy on offer at the moment. Lisa Young, Justen O’Connor and Laura Alfrey, who provide an excellent conceptual analysis of physical literacy, make the point, that the deeper, richer and complex the flavour of physical literacy the less likely it is going to be applied within contexts like PE and Youth Sport. Some flavours of PL offer us an enriching, complex and holistic dispositional concept that as PE teachers we all would want to promote and develop in our pupils. Those flavours cannot be founded and achieved on reductionist models such as working through a list of competencies, but without such a reductionist model I’m not sure physical literacy will get the traction it deserves. I think the best we can hope for is a brand of political flavours that use PL as a means to shaping policy and practice for the better, but what I believe we will end up is a flavour all together more pragmatic and bland.

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