Over the past decade, coalitions in about a dozen countries have introduced and embraced a variety of initiatives based on a desired outcome in individuals and populations called physical literacy. These collective efforts have been launched in response to a common problem in industrialized societies: declining rates of physical activity. Across the developed world, movement has been engineered out of daily life over the past generation, due in part to technological advances and institutions that have shifted resources to train workers for today’s information-based economies.
The downstream consequences of creating sedentary lifestyles have only recently become apparent, and they are considerable. Research shows that physically inactive children are more likely to gain unhealthy amounts of weight, miss school, and perform worse academically. They’re twice as likely to be obese as adults. They’ll earn less at work, have higher health care costs, and take extra sick days. Physical inactivity impairs quality of life, drains economies, and sets in motion a vicious cycle through role modeling; parents who are inactive are 5.8 times more likely to have inactive children.
Aimed largely at young people, physical literacy programs seek to provide the movement skills and motivation to be active for life, though across nations there is variation in the definition of the term, the key components of the program, and the mechanisms of delivery. To date, there has also been a dearth of sustained efforts targeted at vulnerable populations—a gap that would need to be addressed in any successful physical literacy movement in the United States. Those with the lowest rates of physical activity and sports participation include children from low-income families, youth who are racial and ethnic minorities, girls, and children with physical or developmental disabilities.
The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program introduced physical literacy as a promising concept worth considering at the program’s April 2013 launch summit for Project Play, a multi-stage initiative to provide thought leaders with the tools to build healthy communities through sports, the first phase of which focused on reimagining youth sports in a form that serves the needs of all children. There, a leader from the Canadian Sport 4 Life movement, Dean Kriellaars, exercise physiologist and associate professor at the University of Manitoba, presented on the promise of physical literacy, describing it as a strategy that has been embraced in Canada by many of the sectors that work with children, including sports. Many of the 80 high-level leaders at the summit, representing health, sport, education, and other stakeholder groups, were enthusiastic about the potential for a similar effort in the United States. In January 2015, the Sports & Society Program proposed in its report Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game that the development of physical literacy in all children sits at the base of the youth sport system as an aspirational goal and, more broadly, should be the foundation of how we socialize children through sports in all forms, from casual to organized recreational to competitive.
But the Sports & Society Program recognizes that sport is not the only venue to foster physical literacy—a process that starts in the home, when children are infants and begin to explore their world physically, as nature compels them to do. Additionally, sport is just one of many sectors that could benefit from a meaningful, society-wide embrace of physical literacy principles and programs that encourage children to continue their development in the face of cultural messages, passive entertainment options, and other impediments to physical activity. Among the sectors that could play a role and share in the rewards: public health & foundations, health care & medical providers, business & industry, policymakers & civic leaders, education, fitness organizations, community recreation, national sport organizations, even media & technology. Families have a significant role to play, too, as parents/guardians seek ways to provide their children with experiences that promote physical, mental, and emotional health.
The Aspen Institute, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, created a 15-member working group comprised of leaders from across sectors to develop a strategic plan for introducing physical literacy as a desired outcome for all children living in the United States. We engaged in a multistep process: 1) conduct an environmental scan of global efforts around physical literacy, 2) develop a definition for physical literacy that fits with the culture and needs of the United States, 3) identify goals and objectives for a successful movement, 4) engage additional leaders from key sectors whose participation will be necessary to successfully activate a physical literacy plan, and 5) lay the groundwork for broad adoption of physical literacy as a goal of stakeholder organizations.
This white paper conceptualizes a path forward, one we recognize is a journey that will require sustained commitment and coordination. As one of the Canadian leaders told our working group, it has taken nearly a decade of planning, communicating, and developing materials to turn their physical literacy movement into a “snowball rolling downhill.” That’s in a nation with one-tenth the population of the United States, and a political culture and set of resources that in some ways make it easier to introduce and adopt grand proposals. But the United States has its own unique assets, financial or otherwise—and a history of dynamic ideas taking hold when shaped and introduced effectively.
The need for a breakthrough strategy is clearly there: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages six to 17 participate in one hour of physical activity daily, yet by the time they reach 6th grade, only 28.1 percent of girls and 41.4 percent of boys achieve this level of activity. Between the ages of nine and 15, youth in the US participate in 38 fewer minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each year, accounting for a 75 percent decrease.
More than one-third of youth are overweight or obese, and obese youth have lesser coordination and “poorer performances in tasks requiring movement or projection of the body through space,” which is likely a barrier to being active. Obesity, among youth and adults, leads to the development of diabetes at higher rates. Physical inactivity and obesity are also risk factors for cancer, heart disease, stroke, joint and bone disease, and depression. By 2030, the combined medical costs associated with treating preventable, obesity-related diseases alone could increase by up to $66 billion per year, with a loss in economic productivity of up to $580 billion annually. The underserved are at greatest risk.
Physical literacy programs have not been around long enough to produce longitudinal studies evaluating their effectiveness. But research has established that children with better-developed motor skills are more physically active as early as the preschool years, that motor coordination is a significant predictor of physical activity during the grade school years, and that youth who are physically active are more likely to stay active through adolescence and into adulthood. Indeed, support for the theory behind physical literacy has only grown since 1986 when Michigan State University researchers concluded, “The available evidence suggests that the quality of motor development in early life may have a significant impact on the quality of life experienced in later years.” In this way, physical literacy is the gateway to an active lifestyle, as Kriellaars has noted.
Physical literacy requires the development of more than motor skills—it’s also a matter of developing the mindset to use those skills. Yet, many are late in acquiring the fundamental movement skills that allow them to feel good about their competence to engage in sports and other activities. See the chart below, based on research that identifies the age at which 60 percent of children were able to demonstrate proficiency in several basic movement skills; the chart also notes the age at which experts say children require an “intervention,” or teaching effort, to help them develop a skill.
In catalyzing physical activity, not all fundamental movement skills are created equal. Running speed and agility, a high proficiency in the standing long jump, and visual motor skills have among the strongest correlations to physical activity.  One study of preschool-aged youth found that having proficient locomotor skills (running, jumping, sliding, galloping, leaping, and hopping) was associated with increased time in MVPA and vigorous physical activity (VPA), while proficiency in object control (throwing, catching, rolling, kicking, striking, and dribbling) did not affect time spent in MVPA or VPA. Supporting the value of locomotor skills was another study that found that young men who are physically active in their twenties had better motor fitness scores (600-yard run, sit-ups, 50-yard dash, and shuttle run) as youths and teens than inactive young adults. Still other data recognize the role of physical literacy skills (including running, vertical jumping, catching, overhand throwing, forehand striking, and kicking) in fostering engagement in organized sports. Despite the variability in existing research, it is clear that “more skilled children and youth tend to be more active,” as Robert Malina, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, concluded following an analysis of the available data.
Given the available data, Malina and other experts hypothesize that enhancing movement proficiency among children in general, and at the same time reducing or eliminating deficits among children in underserved populations, would increase levels of physical activity across society. A commitment to developing physical literacy in all children holds the promise of helping them understand what it is like to have a body that can do the things they want—run, jump, hop, skip, throw, catch, and kick, among other movements— that allow engagement in activities that are fun, healthful, and build community.
On the following pages is an assessment of what it would take to catalyze a movement around physical literacy in the United States, starting with us identifying the groups in greatest need followed by a definition of the term as conceived by our Aspen Institute working group.