Physical literacy is the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life

Before diving deep on the above definition that our work group arrived on, it’s worth taking a step back and recognizing that nature dictates the shape of physical literacy when allowed to unfold without disabilities or environmental impediments. Even before birth, a child begins to move. They are programmed to do so. It is a biological imperative tied to the survival instinct and essential to human development. As newborns and infants, milestones begin to unfold, joyfully documented by parents/guardians: the first time they roll over, the first time they sit unsupported, the first time they crawl, the first time they pull themselves up, the first time they stand on their own, and eventually—the greatest accomplishment to date—the first steps. All the while, infants play, with objects and people.

As they get older, children develop, combine, and begin to master movement skills. They make obstacle courses with everyday objects and pretend that curbs are balance beams. They kick rocks, throw pine cones or balls, jump over imaginary lava, hang on countertops and on adults, try to stand on the school bus while it moves, slide across the floor in socks, jump while in sleeping bags or pillow cases, climb trees, skip across parking lots, and draw hopscotch boxes in the driveway or street. They make up games, with brooms as hockey sticks or using other everyday items. They initiate pillow fights, race on the playground, play tag, and challenge friends in cartwheel and handstand competitions. These activities provide the foundational skills for more structured forms of play, in organized sports or otherwise, which in turn, if designed with the health needs of children in mind, can make their own contribution to the development of physical literacy. 

Researchers recognize stages of motor development. The model below describes how each stage builds on the other, starting with reflexive movements. As children move into the third phase, focused on fundamental movements such as locomotion and object manipulation, environmental factors—access to activities—become more of a driving force than genetic influences in development and progression to the specialized movement phase. 

The model is valuable from a neurological and physical perspective, though it does not take into account motivational factors that can propel development. Thus the Aspen Institute encourages a cross-sector embrace of the following simple, useful definition: Physical literacy is the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life.

ABILITY refers to competency in basic movement skills and an overall fitness that allows individuals to engage in a variety of games and activities. This outcome is achieved through a mix of informal play and intentional teaching of movement skills,[41] among them running, balancing, hopping, skipping, jumping, dodging, gliding, falling, lifting, swimming, kicking, throwing and a range of skills that require general hand-eye coordination.

CONFIDENCE is knowing that you have the ability to play sports or enjoy other physical activities. It is the result of programs and venues that are inclusive of people with differing abilities, and the support and encouragement from parents, guardians, coaches, administrators, teammates, and peers throughout the development process.

DESIRE is the intrinsic enthusiasm for physical activity, whether in organized or unstructured formats, in traditional or alternative sport. This result is achieved through early positive experiences that are fun and motivate children to do their best.

A review of other countries’ definitions of physical literacy shows that while variations exist, most agree that the above components build upon one another to give individuals the foundation to be active for life, assuming there are quality opportunities available for individuals to engage in activity and recreation. The academic research agrees, supporting the idea that the development of basic movement patterns in young children and the transition to more complex skills among older children are partially dependent upon early experiences, opportunities to engage in new movement experiences, and the quality of early instruction and practice.[42]

The definition is the backbone of this plan and is critical to the success of any collective effort. It provides a common language for all stakeholders and creates a standard by which an effort to increase physical literacy can be measured as tools are developed. As such, all stakeholders—from schools to sports, policymakers to community-benefit organizations, businesses to health professionals—are encouraged to adopt consistent language. Doing so will foster the pursuit of a shared agenda, one of the conditions essential to collective impact as described in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.[43]

Using the same definition and verbiage will also help avoid potential confusion with other terms used in this space, including physical education, a school-based program that aims to develop physically literate individuals; and health literacy, which is unrelated to physical activity and the federal government defines as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”[44]