“I’m not very good at throwing,” my daughter recently confessed. “Or kicking.”
Her self-assessment came after I explained the concept of “physical literacy,” which is the movement equivalent of reading or adding. Basically, a child who is physically literate has mastered basic movement skills and is comfortable running, jumping, balancing, spinning, throwing and catching, etc., across a range of activities.
In my daughter’s case, we’ve never enrolled her in softball, basketball or soccer, and we’re not a toss-the-pigskin-around-on-the-weekend kind of family, so the only regular contact she’s had with a ball is in gym class. The problem? “In gym, they don’t teach you how to throw, they expect you to already know how.”
So her throwing doesn’t improve, and as a result, she prefers non-ball activities, like capture the flag, or obstacle courses.
This failure to acquire basic physical skills is a growing problem — and not just with kicking and throwing, there are plenty of children who are great at soccer but can’t ice skate or do a cartwheel — and one I address in a story on physical literacy, for Today’s Parent, online today. The story coincides with the annual ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, also released today.
This year’s Report Card shows that kids are not physically active enough (Overall Physical Activity earned a D-). What’s more, they’re also struggling with physical literacy, which was graded for the first time and earned a D+.
The fact that kids aren’t active enough isn’t a big surprise — we’ve long been wringing our hands over increasingly sedentary kids and growing rates of obesity and childhood diabetes. But what my story and the report revealed to me is that while schools and parents spend a lot of time making sure their kids can read and do math, when it comes to focusing on the physical skills that will ensure they stay active for life, we fall short. Could there be a connection between this lack of basic movement skills and the fact activity levels drop off as kids get older? If you never learned how to hit a ball well, you’re not going to suddenly take up tennis, after all.
I always thought we did a pretty good job of being active with — and active role models for — Avery and Bennett. We hike, ski and swim as a family. We also have a trampoline that the children love. Avery has tried gymnastics, dance and karate, and through Girl Guides she’s been ice skating and inline skating. She’s also comfortable on a bike and a scooter. So, her locomotor and stability skills are great — it’s the manipulative skills, common in ball sports, that could use some work.
Bennett, who has autism and a chromosome condition, has always struggled with gross and fine motor skills. Since he finds many physical activities challenging to begin with, we’ve gravitated toward what he likes — horseback riding, swimming and hiking. He isn’t even close to physically literate, even though he’s been exposed to a wide range of activities. As a result, there’s a lot he can’t do, and will probably never be able to do.
The question is, should we be doing more as parents? Honestly, the thought of making the kids work on their kicking, throwing and catching is exhausting, partly because I’m just not that into balls. As it is, I have to bribe Bennett with chocolate to get him to ride his adapted bike! Perhaps schools could do a better job teaching those skills — and that will likely happen in junior high and high school, at least for Avery, when she’s forced to join a team (that’s when I played basketball and volleyball).
But here’s the thing: I was never great at soccer or softball, either. Like Avery, I gravitated toward gymnastics, trampolining and skiing, and as an adult, hiking and bike riding. I don’t play on any adult leagues, but I’m still physically active. Am I physically literate? I probably was back in 1989, but like my ability to write essays in French and solve calculus equations, those movement skills have faded with time.
The best I can hope for is that the groundwork we’re laying for our kids — the hiking, daily walks, skiing and swimming, regardless of whether they become physically literate — will rub off on them and inspire them to be active for life.