As the proud uncle of twin boys, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly they learn physical skills such as the ability to walk, run and throw a ball. This led me to think back to my own youth, and how fortunate I was to be encouraged to play a wide range of sports. Cricket, soccer and football were staples in my neighbourhood, and we also enjoyed hockey, baseball and basketball. From each sport, we gained skills that contributed to our proficiency and enjoyment of the other sports. Without really planning for it, we were building a library of skills to play almost any sport and have fun doing it - we were developing our 'physical literacy'.
What is physical literacy and why is it important?
It might seem odd to think of playing childhood recreational sports as contributing to a long-term development process, but mastering physical skills can set an individual up to lead a healthy and active life. To give children the best chance of feeling confident and competent at either participating or competing at sports, they need to be taught fundamental movement skills which, if not learned, means the child may get frustrated and not want to play sports at all.
According to the International Physical Literacy Association, physical literacy is the term used to describe the "motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life." Essentially this means equipping children with the full range of basic skills, so they can play any sport they set their mind to. These fundamental skills include:
Striking (ball with bat)
If a child finds it difficult to throw, they may not enjoy sports which require this skill, such as baseball, cricket, rugby or tennis. If they can't swim, their chances of partaking in waterpolo, sailing and surfing are diminished. It's important that a child is taught all fundamental movement skills to give them a wide range of activity and sporting options, which will benefit them right through to adulthood.
How can you develop physical literacy in your child?
Learning the language of activity and sport can begin at a very early age. From 0-6 years old unstructured play is all about encouraging movement and keeping it fun, which in turn introduces agility, balance and coordination. During the all-important pre-teen development period, children should be encouraged to try a wide range of actiivties - from golf and gymnastics to shot put and horse riding. Parents, caregivers and educators need to give reassurance that 'progress not perfection' is the way forward, so as not to prevent enjoyment and participation of a chosen sport.
There is no real reason for a child to specialise in any particular sport until the child is around 11 or 12 years old. Even at that age, the movement towards a specific sport should really be guided by rounding out their physical skills and capacity rather than competing.
Remember - "no one ever quit a sport because it was too fun"
The key to remember when encouraging children to play sport and develop an active life, is that they should be having fun. When they are older and their bodies have gone through puberty there will be enough time to refine their skills toward specialisations in sport. If they quit because of the pressure early on, a potential athlete is lost. As a great coach once told me, “No one ever quit a sport because it was too fun!”.
For more information on physical literacy, there are a variety of resources for parents, coaches and educators through the International Physical Literacy Association. What sports do you think have helped you develop your 'physical literacy'? Comment below!
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