Viewpoints of Dr. Margaret Whitehead

In an effort to inform the working group, we interviewed by e-mail Dr. Margaret Whitehead, visiting professor at the University of Bedfordshire and president of the International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA). Interview questions were sourced from the Aspen Institute’s Physical Literacy Working Group. Questions are provided below with edited responses.  

How should we define physical literacy?

Dr. Margaret Whitehead: In short, physical literacy can be described as a disposition that capitalizes on the human-embodied capability, wherein the individual has the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activity for life. 

 This is the short and simple definition. What is significant is the reference to:

The affective (motivation, confidence, valuing/responsibility)

The physical (to be understood not as isolated skills but effective interaction in different contexts)

The cognitive (knowledge and understanding)

The fundamental goal of physical literacy being lifelong participation.

On account of our holistic nature, individuals making progress on their individual/unique physical literacy journey demonstrate the following attributes/symptomatic behaviors:

The motivation and confidence to capitalize on innate movement/physical potential to make a significant contribution to the quality of life. Physical literacy is an inclusive concept. All humans exhibit this potential, however, its specific expression depends on individual endowment in relation to all capabilities, significantly movement potential, and is particular to cultural and environmental contexts. 

Movement with poise, economy, and confidence in a wide variety of physically challenging situations. 

Sensitive perception in “reading” all aspects of the physical environment, anticipating movement needs or possibilities, and responding appropriately to these, with intelligence and imagination.

A well-established sense of self as embodied in the world which, alongside an articulate interaction with the environment, engenders positive self-esteem and self-confidence.

Sensitivity to and awareness of embodied capability leading to fluent self-expression through nonverbal communication and to perceptive and empathetic interaction with others.

The ability to identify and articulate the essential qualities that influence the effectiveness of movement performance.

An understanding of the principles of holistic health, with respect to fundamental features such as a rich and balanced lifestyle, exercise, sleep, and nutrition.  

A life pattern, that, as appropriate, demonstrates the valuing of and commitment to, participation in physical activity.

What is the purpose of physical literacy?

The purpose of physical literacy is to enable people to have positive, meaningful experiences in their involvement in a wide range of physical activities, with the outcome that they are motivated and confident to value and take responsibility for their own physical activity throughout life.

What is the significance of motivation in developing physical literacy?

What I feel is lacking at the moment, significantly lacking, among many people is the motivation and confidence to continue with physical activity. They feel as if they are not being successful, they will never succeed. As a result they have no confidence. These people tend to have been in situations in which they have received little or no encouragement, their efforts have not been acknowledged, and no value has been given to their progress. It is really important that motivation, in relation to physical activity, is nurtured at all ages, from birth onwards. Motivation is absolutely fundamental in promoting lifelong participation.  

Is physical literacy a one-size-fits-all approach?

No. I am absolutely passionate that we have to help people to realize that everyone is different and that they are all on their own individual physical literacy journey. Everyone can make progress—disabled people, people from all different cultures, women, etc. Judgments should not be made in comparison with others. Judgments should be made against personal previous achievements. They should come away thinking, ‘I can do it.’ Through these positive experiences, they grow in self-confidence and self-esteem and are eager to come back. It is absolutely critical that people have meaningful experiences and that each person is valued for the progress they have made as individuals.

Is physical literacy a globally recognized concept—and is there global momentum? 

The concept is being used worldwide. Very many countries are using the concept of physical literacy. At the moment the situation is one in which a range of parties worldwide have adopted the goals and principles of physical literacy and are now looking into the implications of adopting the concept in their curriculum planning. We are definitely on the way, which is good news.

What do we need to do to advance physical literacy in the United States and other nations?

You need to create an ‘army’ of people committed to fostering physical literacy, who will spread the word and guide others to implement appropriate practice. These people will lead by example. They will come from all constituencies, e.g., early years settings, the coaching world, schools, leisure centers, old peoples’ homes, etc. They will understand the concept of physical literacy and be able to justify its potential and value. This will include being able to articulate the value of being physically active throughout life, for example the beneficial outcomes such as physical health, emotional health, social health—in other words, holistic health. Secondly, we need to set up longitudinal studies both to demonstrate the effectiveness of the physical literacy approach to promote lifelong participation and to have the evidence that particular teaching approaches are effective in enabling all to make progress on their journey. This will involve developing a method of charting individual progress across all elements of the concept (affective, physical, cognitive, and involvement in physical activity beyond school). These steps are urgently needed as, at the moment, many in the adult population have lost all interest and motivation to take part in physical activity. This is being reflected in the attitudes of young people. We have to break into the cycle.

Why is the education system in the United Kingdom taking the lead on physical literacy?

Currently in the UK, it is those in education who have adopted the concept, partly because my roots are in education and partly because I had to fulfill the publisher’s requirement that my book should be directed to a particular constituency. However, colleagues in the coaching community are joining us. It is important to make clear, however, that support for physical literacy needs to be spread across all constituencies who are in a position to promote physical activity throughout life. Teachers of PE are not the only people who can promote physical literacy. However, they have a significant role to play in that they are the only people with the expertise to promote physical literacy who will have contact with every young person. They have the experience to provide sympathetic and knowledgeable guidance and to manage differentiated teaching that caters for all. They have the capacity to sow the seed of meaningful, self-fulfilling, self-affirming involvement in physical activity that hopefully will last a lifetime. We need well-trained teachers in all phases of education.

What strategies work best for promoting and implementing physical-literacy-based programs? 

At root we have to persuade those in authority that:

Involvement in physical activity has significant benefits for holistic health. This includes physical health, emotional health, and social heath, as well as illness prevention and the resources to recover from illness.

Involvement in physical activity can enhance life by offering a wide range of experiences that are enjoyable and enriching, giving purpose to life and the chance to be active alongside others.

The way to promote lifelong participation is to ensure that participants have meaningful and worthwhile experiences that will give them the motivation and confidence to make physical activity a regular part of their lives.

Money promoting physical literacy will be money well spent. The investment will be preventative in relation to poor health and at the same time create a robust work force.

What strategies have you and/or others used to put physical literacy on the same page as literacy and numeracy?

Write papers, give presentations, and engage with as many people as possible to argue for the value of lifelong physical activity and hence the benefits of promoting physical literacy. Prior to the creation of IPLA it fell to me to sell the concept. A stance I have taken, on occasion, is to advocate a liberal curriculum that acknowledges that we, as humans, are comprised of numerous dimensions—e.g., the emotional, the cognitive, the aesthetic, the physical—and that for a balanced curriculum and a balanced individual, all dimensions should be addressed. 

Is physical literacy an inclusive concept?

Absolutely, yes. There is no doubt that everyone can make progress on their physical literacy journey notwithstanding their endowment. Everyone can make progress, whether it is tying a shoelace or catching a ball for the first time or running faster/jumping higher. Everyone’s progress should be celebrated. People I know who have worked in the field of special needs tell me of the difference it makes for young (and older) people with disabilities to be helped to master simple movement challenges and to have their progress acknowledged. Experiences such as these can make a real difference and impact across a variety of areas if developed. Enhanced physical activity can benefit all.

What groups have you been successful in incorporating into the physical literacy ‘army?’

Teachers of physical education in schools—primary, secondary, and special—and those working with preschool youngsters. We also have a group of committed coaches who are spreading the word. One initiative refers to ‘coaching the whole child’ and finding out from each child or each individual what their aspirations are in relation to physical activity. We are also beginning to work with people from the leisure industry and people caring for the elderly.

How did you reach out to coaches and what specifically are you asking of them?

There are people in education who either have contacts from the coaching fraternity or who are, themselves, involved in coaching. It would also be true to say that a number of governing bodies (GB) picked up physical literacy early on. GBs run training courses for coaching and some have incorporated physical literacy in their syllabi. This has, in part, been a way to help coaches work effectively in schools, where they are frequently asked to contribute inside and outside curriculum time. There is a longstanding problem of coaches being activity centered and focusing on the elite. Consideration of physical literacy is invaluable to ensure that coaches appreciate that they are teaching the young people, not the activity. 

How can we get more lower-income children involved in physical-literacy-inspired programs?

About six years ago, the UK government established a program called Sure Start. This provided funding for most of the boroughs to set up centers where lower-income parents could bring their preschool children most days a week. In most cases these programs involved opportunities for a range of physical activity, generally of a free-play variety but on occasions with some guidance. In very many cases these centers were highly successful. However, funding has run out and the centers have not been maintained by all boroughs. This is very unfortunate and is a lost opportunity to develop parenting skills, promote child development, and give these children opportunities to be physically active.