PLAY = Physical Literacy in All Youth
The goal is to create the conditions for all youth in the United States to be physically literate by the middle school years, thus encouraging habits of health and fitness for life. Generally speaking, that means age 12, though children develop physically and cognitively at varying rates, so the age should be treated as merely a guideline to organize institutional efforts to help children meet physical literacy milestones. We also recognize the pursuit of physical literacy does not end at age 12, and it should be developed beyond that age; programs and venues should support that opportunity so everyone in the United States can be active for life. (Note: A future working group would be wise to address how to develop and maintain physical literacy in teens, adults, and seniors.)
Developing physical literacy in youth provides our greatest opportunity, however, as suggested by the environmental scan of other nations. In a review of 10 countries for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, J.O. Spengler, chair of our Sport and Physical Activity Research Collaborative, found that all had a focus on children. For instance, several programs in England recognize the significance of reaching kids at this critical stage in life. One, Bupa Start to Move, trains PE teachers for four- to seven-year-olds in techniques that help them teach the fundamental movement skills that create competent, confident movers.
Research also shows that it is important to reach children before age 12. As Avery D. Faigenbaum and Wayne L. Westcott write in the ACE Youth Fitness Manual:
The eventual decline and disinterest in physical activity appears to begin early in life in sedentary boys and girls. Children who are not exposed to an environment with opportunities to enhance muscular strength and [fundamental movement skills] such as catching, kicking, jumping, and balancing appear less willing to participate in games, sports, and free-play activities. By middle child hood, children more accurately compare their physical prowess to others and their perception of competence can influence their persistence in games in activities. Some 10-year-olds already know that they are not as good as their peers, and, consequently, they choose to be sedentary rather than display low levels of motor-skill competence in front of their family and friends.
Understanding the physical development of children is key. For most, the body develops in dramatic ways during early childhood, plateauing in middle-childhood and then maturing rapidly again between the ages of 10 and 12. So, age-appropriate standards should be implemented for each grade level. It’s also important to recognize that each child develops on their own timeline, so becoming physically literate is less about achieving a certain status relative to one’s peers and more about starting early and continually progressing toward benchmarks tied to personal development. Indeed, Canada has established different training stages for boys and girls in its long-term athlete development model, an initiative inclusive of physical literacy, since their bodies mature at different ages. Teaching physical literacy is a process best targeted to sex and age ranges, while recognizing that girls and boys develop at different rates, even among their same-sex peers.
None of the countries surveyed have set goals that specify the level of proficiency in physical literacy that it aims to achieve at given ages within in the population. Instead, the most motivated countries have focused on institutional actions designed to propel scalable change. A leading example: the government of Wales has deemed physical literacy to be as important to the development of schoolchildren as numeracy and literacy, and a recent task force recommended that physical education be a core subject in school curriculum, a powerful statement that recognizes the benefits of physical activity (more here).
As an aspirational goal for the United States, organizations that directly touch the lives of children are encouraged to commit by the end of 2016 to integrating physical literacy principles in their programs. They are encouraged to design those frameworks and teachings by 2018 and have them fully implemented by 2020. These organizations include but are not limited to: schools, day-care centers, sport programs, before- and after-school activities, scouting and youth leadership organizations, community centers, and youth-mentoring programs. All sectors can play support roles, as discussed in the next section. One of the most important needs will be indexing the rate of physical literacy. By 2020, as these programs come alive, stakeholders should benchmark the rates, then set incremental goals for how to reach all youth by 2030—with targeted strategies to reach our most vulnerable populations.
At the core of the effort must be a commitment to reach underserved youth. The statistics cited here only begin to highlight the need for a strategy based on targeted universalism, meaning a holistic plan that serves all with special efforts to close specific existing gaps. Not only are youth who are racial minorities more likely to be physically inactive than their white counterparts, they have fewer options to become active. A study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis found that 70 percent of African American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim. This deficit in swimming—one of the skills essential to physical literacy— also leads to drowning rates that are higher than that of white youth. In fact, white youth have the lowest rates of drowning, while American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest. Further, most neighborhoods that are predominantly African American (71 percent) or Hispanic (81 percent) do not have access to a recreational facility, while a majority of predominantly white areas do (38 percent lack access). This is especially significant, given the research that people who live within one mile of a park are four times more likely to visit the park once per week or more, compared to those living farther away.
Some of the best opportunities for impact exist at after-school programs that serve low-income kids. In a 2014 analysis of obesity prevention strategies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, programs that incorporate physical activity were found to hold the most promise in reducing the weight of six- to 12-year-old children through 2032, moreso even than shifts in food-related policies. Several large, national after-school providers have already made commitments to add more physical activity to their programming.
For youth with disabilities, though, waiting until they are old enough to be enrolled in after-school programs may be too late. Data from Special Olympics programs indicate that the ages of two to five are critical; failure to engage youth with disabilities during this time may result in these individuals not making the same kind of progress in learning fundamental motor skills, developing confidence in their abilities, and owning a sense of desire to be active.
Integrating physical literacy concepts into programs already serving America’s underserved youth is key in reversing these trends, as is helping programs dedicated to physical literacy understand the barriers facing children from diverse backgrounds. Indeed, closing the gap between the physical activity rates of vulnerable populations and other children should be a primary objective, at the very top of the list of priorities of organizations that engage in this effort.