In 2014, the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, through its Project Play initiative and with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, began to develop a cross-sector physical literacy plan for the United States. Step one was tasking the University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative (now known as the Sports and Physical Activity Research Collaborative) to conduct the first-ever global environmental scan to learn more about the promotion and implementation of physical literacy in other countries. In conducting the scan, methods used to collect data included an analysis of peer-reviewed publications, policy documents, national physical literacy websites, and primary assessment data; interviewing Dr. Margaret Whitehead, founder of the modern movement around physical literacy; and gathering information from experts in other nations through electronic communication. Ten nations were selected for analysis based on a review of the literature and advice from physical literacy experts. Three nations—Canada, Wales, and England—were selected for a deeper analysis given their especially active and developed physical literacy initiatives. The Sports & Society Program and the authors of this report hope the scan helps leaders from across the world design physical literacy programs in their countries, catalyzing and sharpening efforts in this important, emerging space.

Overview of selected countries

After consulting global leaders in physical literacy and reviewing the literature, ten countries were selected for analysis. These countries either explicitly recognize physical literacy or implicitly incorporate components (affective, cognitive, physical—see definitions on page 24) of physical literacy into their policies and programs. The countries included for analysis in this report are, in order of appearance, Canada, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands, Venezuela. Some countries define physical literacy solely in terms of developing fundamental movement skills, while the majority of countries selected for analysis took a more holistic view of physical literacy that included affective, cognitive, and physical components. All except Venezuela are among the wealthiest 21 countries in the world, as ranked by the International Monetary Fund. Venezuela, which supports physical literacy through community-based programs without expressly recognizing physical literacy, is the only low-to-middle income country (LMIC) in this analysis.

Initial findings from this scan are as follows:

  • Each country or group has developed its own definition of physical literacy. Dr. Margaret Whitehead, visiting professor at the University of Bedfordshire and president of the International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA), said that a globally embraced definition is desirable, but recognizes that other nations and groups have felt the need to tailor definitions to reflect their own culture and systems. “If alternative definitions are used, they must identify the core long-term goal of physical literacy as being lifelong participation,” she said, “and they must make reference to the affective (motivation, confidence, valuing/responsibility), the physical (effective interaction in different contexts), and the cognitive (knowledge and understanding).”[1]
  • The countries with the most established initiatives (England, Wales, and Canada) all deliver physical literacy programs primarily through sport and educational systems. Each of them work with national sport governing bodies and schools to introduce children to these concepts, through physical education, community sports, and active play. The programs all include the affective, cognitive, and physical components of physical literacy, and all have an assessment component. From a macro-level perspective, the organizations that deliver this programming all receive funding and support from a nationally recognized body, either a federal agency focused on sports (e.g., Sport England, Sport Canada, and Sport Wales) or other government department. England and Wales utilize national lottery funds to support physical literacy initiatives, while Canada primarily uses government and private (corporate) funding. All supplement funding for physical literacy initiatives with private donations or corporate sponsorships.
  • The countries with the most established initiatives all have strong, effective messaging strategies. Canada has a well-developed online presence with resources for parents and coaches, workshops, videos, and blogs. Canada also employs social media as part of its messaging campaign. The International Physical Literacy Association, based in Europe and led by Whitehead, also has an effective messaging and communication arm.
  • Promotion of physical literacy efforts to policymakers often occurs in the context of rising health care costs. Other rationales include the need to improve the physical health and mental well-being of the populace and reverse long-term health conditions created by unhealthy lifestyle choices. Whitehead suggests the approach that “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.”[2] 
  • Physical literacy initiatives aimed at lower-income and underserved populations are often provided through government-funded programs. One example is the government of the United Kingdom, which launched the program Sure Start and funded centers in most of the boroughs where lower-income children received opportunities to engage in physical-literacy-based activities. However, sustained government funding for programs reaching these and other underserved populations is a major challenge. 
  • Developing grassroots support for physical literacy is key to the creation and implementation of physical-literacy-based programs. The countries that have achieved the most success have all found this to be the case. “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,” Whitehead said. “These people will lead by example. They will come from all constituencies.”[3]  She said that formally training people in how to teach physical literacy is essential.
  • Assessment tools to measure the outcomes of physical literacy are relatively new. No multi-year longitudinal studies have been conducted to determine, for example, a correlation between participation in physical-literacy-based programs and positive health outcomes. However, there is evidence to suggest, through preliminary findings in Canada, that children value physical literacy and perceive it as important in their lives.

The following sections offer a synopsis of information relevant to physical literacy for the selected countries. Specifically, this report documents: 

  1. the current status of physical literacy in each country, 
  2. how each country defines physical literacy, 
  3. which organizations are taking leadership roles, 
  4. the sector and venues where physical literacy is present, 
  5. sample program(s) incorporating physical literacy, 
  6. key resources for follow-up, 
  7. messaging and communication strategies around physical literacy, 
  8. evidence of inclusion of underserved groups, 
  9. assessments where available, 
  10. leadership by sport organizations, and 
  11. success stories, where applicable.