National Post: New concept of physical literacy has parents wondering if they need to teach their kids how to play now, too

By Sarah Boesveld, National Post

Sara Smeaton used to write notes to excuse herself from gym class — and she got her mother to write them too. A dancer, gymnast and swimmer as a kid, she ditched the pool at age 10 after she was put in a lonely synchronized swimming class.

“You can’t synchronize swim by yourself without feeling like a huge loser,” says the Toronto mother of two. That was the “turning point” — the moment she decided she was just not “sporty.” A sedentary adolescence took hold.

A few years ago, she saw a flash of herself in her 6-year-old daughter who declared one day that reading, not being outside and active, was her “thing.”

“It was interesting to me that she felt the two were mutually exclusive, which, of course, they’re not,” she said. “That’s been a huge shift now.”

The shift came after Ms. Smeaton learned about the emerging concept of physical literacy, which professes that just as children need to learn reading, writing and basic math to succeed in life, so too must they know how to move and be confident in their bodies.

She’d teach her children agility, balance, jumping, kicking, throwing — the “fundamentals of movement” through fun games offered up by not-for-profit Active for Life, where she now blogs about the concept. It allowed her to evaluate her kids on the sly while they just thought they were playing.

“She chose to play soccer at school [this year],” Ms. Smeaton said, of the corner her daughter has turned. “She loves karate, she’s working towards her blue belt."

It becomes another item on the parental to-do list, something else they’ve got to squeeze in.
— Carl Honoré

To the growing list of literacies a parent must teach their child to master these days — digital, sexual, financial, you name it — add physical literacy, a concept that has “caught like brushfire” amongst Canadian physical education experts in the past few years, and is grabbing the attention of top policy-makers. A child with good physical literacy skills will be more likely to get involved in sports and continue to be physically active later in life, proponents say. Studies show kids’ physical activity levels drop off after about Grade 4 in most provinces and only 10% of Canadian children get enough daily physical activity. Sport participation levels in this country are dropping and 30% of Canadian children are either overweight or obese.

And yet, while the intentions are pure and the cause noble, some thinkers have concerns about how physical literacy is being delivered to the masses: It arrives at a time of immense pressure on parents trying to prepare their child in a competitive world, critics say, and they question whether formalizing play may suck out the freedom and fun.

“I think one danger in that is it becomes another item on the parental to-do list, something else they’ve got to squeeze in between the piano lessons and Kumon tutoring,” said Carl Honoré, author of books like The Slow Fix and Under Pressure: Rescuing our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting who gave the keynote at the inaugural International Physical Literacy Conference held in Banff in April.

The moment you start creating metrics — as a new app from Active for Life does by allowing parents to evaluate progress of basic skills by percentage points — he said, that’s when the game changes: The “hyper-parenting instinct” to be number one can take hold.

“Deeper below that is a sort of meta-point that you are taking something that should be children’s business: Play, just running around, skipping in the backyard, jumping through sprinklers, climbing trees, building forts, playing marbles, throwing sticks — all the things that children have done to make themselves physically literate throughout all of human history, which is basic, simple and free and involves adults getting out of the way,” he said.

But it’s not simply enough to fling open a door and have a child go play outside, said Richard Monette, a Banff-based sports psychologist who works with top Olympic athletes, because kids will only pursue what they’re good at. And feeling like a failure at a certain activity and being discouraged from trying is not good for overall self-confidence, he said.

“Physical literacy is not for jocks only,” said Mr. Monette. “Imagine a girl on the playground, she’s playing dodgeball and she never learned to throw a ball. She gets the ball, she throws it awkwardly, she falls and gets made fun of. What’s the outcome? She won’t play any ball games from then on. And on top of it, let’s say she’s a bit obese and can’t run properly and can’t swim, she doesn’t have any options and will most likely be inactive for life.”

Mr. Monette, who essentially heads up Active for Life, which was started a year ago by sport philanthropists, points to science that shows physical activity can be a key to success in school and a child’s social life.

While the research on that front is clear, longitudinal studies on whether physical literacy makes a specific difference in a child’s physical activity levels through life are lacking, since the idea is still so new.

An as-yet-unpublished study of 860 students in eight provinces, including Alberta and Quebec, found a marked improvement in the physicality and activity levels of Grade 4 and 5 students.

Manitoba, which has mandatory phys-ed up to Grade 12, has introduced physical literacy in schools, and even has trained specialists to teach the basics. Ridley College, a private boarding school in St. Catharines, Ont., is introducing the concept this fall, says Chris Jones, executive director and CEO of Physical & Health Education Canada.

“We think [school] is the ideal venue for this to be taught,” he said, adding that teachers — especially those who have to teach all subjects and aren’t specialists in phys-ed — haven’t been exposed to the importance of “fundamental movements” in a big way. This is also why Active for Life is targeting parents and not schools, Mr. Monette said.

They’re not going to become Usain Bolt, but that’s not the goal.
— Dean Kriellaars

Thing is, parents are often the first ones to say “my kid’s just not athletic” — steeped in the notion that physicality is innate and not taught. It just isn’t true, said Dean Kriellaars, a professor in the school of medical rehabilitation at the University of Manitoba.

Even clumsy kids have benefited, he said, adding that he's never worked with one who hasn't improved at least a little. 

"They're not going to become Usain Bolt running, but that's not the goal," he said. "The goal is to get it up to a certain level of competence where all of a sudden you feel confidence to do it in an outside world." 

Tracie Wagman, a mom of two in Toronto, likes the idea of physical literacy, but it baffles her just a little bit. 

"In a way [it sounds like] 'let's put a name on playing' so perhaps parents will feel better that they're doing something" to help make their kids more active, she said.  Her children Maya, 11, and Caleb, 8, try all kinds of different sports and stick with the ones they're good at and enjoy. 

"If it's about training yourself to make sure you do understand those basics, that's great," she said. "As long as it's not being set up as another thing like 'Oh now I'm not doing this properly.'" 

The best way to ensure your child leads an active and healthy life is to be a role model yourself, said Yoni Freedhoff, a professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute.

“I think we have, as a society overall, vastly overcomplicated everything: We’re trying to get A+s in healthy living, we want our kids to get A+ eating habits, we want them to apparently have A+ activity habits, and then we create these regimes for ourselves and our kids that we can’t sustain and then we quit,” he said. “And really, just get them out the door, have them play in the afternoon, make a rule that they can’t do their homework until they’ve played for a half an hour … Why organize something that should be a joy to just do?”

For her part, Ms. Smeaton said she introduced the skills “organically” into her family’s schedule and doesn’t obsess over the evaluations. And the kids like it.

“The first thing is ‘are your kids outside? Are they playing?’ That’s not ‘let’s work on physical literacy’ that’s ‘hey guys, let’s go to the park.’”

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