Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Physical Literacy - A True 21st century Skill

 Schools spend a lot of time working with students around literacy. Most people understand literacy to have something to do with books or reading, but really it means much more. In its broadest terms literacy has to do with competence and knowledge in a specified area. There is a growing awareness that schools need to consider more than just the academic development of their students; that attention needs to be paid to students physical well being as well. More than ever students should be physically as well as academically literate.

Physically literate individuals consistently develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply, and analyze different kinds of movement. They demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently, creatively and strategically across a wide range of physical activities. Their skills enable individuals to make healthy, active choices that are beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and the environment. These skills also translate to other aspects of their schooling and help develop a healthier, happier and more competent student. There is definitely truth to the phrase "Mens sana in corpore sano -a sound mind in a healthy body.

PHE Canada (Physical Health and Education Canada) is an organization, made up primarily of educators, that has been promoting physical education programs for the generation of healthier citizens for 75 years. PHE Canada believes physical literacy is about developing student attitudes so that children can engage in a variety of physical activities with poise and confidence. PHE Canada believes schools can be the drivers to engage and condition students to see physical activities as fun and necessary aspects of daily life.

Spend some time on an elementary playground during break time and you can easily see that younger students are willing participants in physical literacy. The energy and effort that goes into a recess break is truly inspiring. Move to a middle school or a secondary school and the energy levels seem to drop. At some point schools become serious places dedicated to academic pursuits and physical exercise starts to be more like work than fun. Ask a group of fourth graders to race the length of a play ground and you'll likely get left in the dust. Ask a group of grade 10's and you'll more likely get ignored or be met with reasons not to. 

Physical literacy is not about creating elite level athletes. It's about keeping people active. Isn't it ironic that in a world that seems fixated on body image and waist line watching, more attention and resources aren't dedicated to the sort of positive preventative maintenance that physical literacy represents? Any adult who has tried to drop a few pounds can easily attest to how hard it is to correct the situation after the weight has gone on. How much better would it be to develop generations of students who view physical activity with confidence, enthusiasm and as a necessary part of daily life?

Its not like schools are unaware of the issue. Quality DPA - daily physical activity has been part of the BC Curriculum since September 2008. The ministry requirements, guidelines and resources can be found at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/dpa/dpa. Its one thing to set out the expectation however, and completely another to make it happen. Physical Literacy needs to be legitimized, promoted and profiled in positive ways. Ministry definitions of DPA don't help this cause. DPA is described as "endurance, strength and/or flexibility activities done on a daily basis".  Webster's dictionary defines endurance as " the ability to sustain an unpleasant or difficult process without giving way". The whole concept of sweat equity makes all exercise sound like an unpleasant investment.

Physical literacy should not be about enduring. It needs be about enjoying processes that are seen as fun, not difficult! The whole point of physical literacy is to give students the confidence to try, learn and master skills that will sustain them for a lifetime. As schools move towards developing 21st century learners it will be increasingly important to include physical literacy on the learning agenda. Valuing physical activities and keeping them fun and accessible for all will engage students more than many more "serious' academic initiatives. Since a bi-product of active energized students is a greater receptiveness to learning, physical literacy might be a better route to literacy in other areas as well. Perhaps Descartes got it backwards. Surely there's got to be more to school than just being there, Instead of "I think therefore I am"  21st century learners need to declare "I move, therefore I think!"

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