Physical Literacy: More than Just a New Fad

One of the earliest mentions of the term physical literacy in an academic journal was in 1938.2 Since that time, it was seldom used until the early 1990s when the term garnered more significant interest following Margaret Whitehead’s landmark publications on the concept of physical literacy.  Today, physical literacy is the goal of SHAPE America’s National Standards for K-12 Physical Education.3 This brings it in line with terminology currently used in other subject areas such as health literacy and math literacy.

So what exactly is physical literacy and how does it relate to physical education?  The concept has led to some confusion at times by misinterpreting the term and using it interchangeably with physical education.  Although there are quite a few different definitions of the term physical literacy, attempts are being made toward a common language and definition.  Recently, a number of leaders from various organizations were invited by the Aspen Institute with the objective of developing a model, strategic plan and call to action for physical literacy in the United States.1 The outcome was the following definition: Physical literacy is the ability, confidence and desire to be physically active for a lifetime.  It is a lifelong journey different and unique for each individual.  Physically literate individuals do not just move in isolation of their environment.  Rather, they take responsibility for maintaining, and helping others to maintain, purposeful physical activity pursuits throughout the course of a lifetime.

Although the case can be made that becoming physically educated in the broad sense is a life-long endeavor, most people identify physical education as a subject area taught within the school curriculum.  Indeed, physical education is an academic subject and, as such, demands the same level of educational rigor as other core subjects. Physical education provides students with a planned, sequential, K-12 standards-based program of curricula and instruction designed to develop motor skills, knowledge and behaviors for active living, physical fitness, sportsmanship, self-efficacy and emotional intelligence.3 Since physical educators typically have contact with every young person, physical education classes therefore become vitally important and should be a core subject taught in every one of our schools.  Within this context, physical educators play a key role in providing students with the building blocks and guidance along their physical literacy journey.  Physical literacy then becomes the goal or outcome of physical education.

In addition to physical educators, coaches, strength and conditioning specialists, fitness instructors and other competent physical activity leaders can have a profound influence on the continued development toward physical literacy.  Physical activity participation trends tend to decrease, starting as early as middle school age and many people lapse in their physical activity participation after leaving school.  This includes sports as well as recreational physical activities.

Understanding the concept and value of physical literacy therefore cannot be understated.  Physical literacy can and should lead to:

  • A renewed focus on the importance of the physical educator in the school setting
  • Deliberate practice of well-designed learning tasks that allow for skill acquisition in an instructional climate focused on mastery
  • Recognition of the term “literacy”, paralleling the terminology used in other subjects such as health, reading and mathematics
  • Adoption of the concept within sport, recreation and other physical activities to create lifetime opportunities for all
  • Embracing the concept to enrich the quality of our own lives as well as those around us
  • A decrease in sedentary behavior, overall inactivity and obesity rates in our country

Several countries around the world have started incorporating the concept of physical literacy into their organizations and programs.  Is the United States ready to take the leap?  The approximately 55 million students in our K-12 school systems count on us to provide them with the knowledge and skills leading into college and adulthood.  Embracing physical literacy will allow us to amplify our important messages and actions within physical education and all other physical activities thereby empowering everyone to live a healthy, physically active lifestyle.

E. Paul Roetert, Ph.D., is the Chief Executive Officer of SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators, the largest organization of professionals involved in school-based health, physical education and physical activity.  Founded in 1885, SHAPE America is committed to ensuring all children have the opportunity to lead healthy, physically active lives. Roetert has presented nationally and internationally and has published extensively in the fields of coaching education, sports medicine and science, including four books, more than 25 book chapters and over 100 articles. He received his Ph.D. in biomechanics from the University of Connecticut and is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.   Roetert is also Vice-President of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.      

1 Aspen Institute (2015).  Physical Literacy in the United States: A Model, Strategic Plan and Call to Action

2 National Physical Education Service (1938).  Journal of Health and Physical Education. Vol 9, (7), 424-458.

SHAPE America. (2014). National standards & grade-level outcomes for K-12 physical education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Suggested Citation: Roetert, E. P. (2016). Physical Literacy: More than Just a New Fad.  Physical Activity Plan Alliance Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health, 2(1).

Oliver Bartzsch is an experienced medical professional with over 15 years of professional experience. With a passion for medicine, fitness, and personal growth, he is always willing to challenge himself to accomplish tasks and especially to provide accurate medical information to people. Oliver is a long-time medical editor for multiple sites. With more than 10 years of medical writing experience, he has completed over 350 projects with both individual and corporate clients.


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