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Physical Literacy

 In the fall of 2015 the YMCA of Western Ontario received a grant to bring the concept of Physical Literacy to our sports programs. Physical literacy is having the confidence, competence, and motivation to be physically active. Just like a child needs to be able to identify the ABC’s before they can read and write, they must be able to perform Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) such as running, jumping, kicking, catching, and throwing, in order to be physically literate.

The focus of physical literacy and bringing this to our programs has allowed us to encourage our participants to challenge themselves with skills that are not only necessary for sports but for everyday life. We want to provide an environment where participants can learn new skills, build off existing ones, create confidence in their ability to move, and provide inspiration to be active for life.


Soccer, ball hockey, gymnastics, and basketball have all been revamped and given curriculums based on physical literacy. You will notice in these programs that many of the activities are not traditional “stand in line” drills that causing players to be stationary for large portions of the program. The focus is on providing participants with a quality sports experience all while having FUN and being active for greater periods of time!

“Children acquire physical literacy by learning fundamental movement skills and sport skills gain access to a universe of possibilities in sport and physical activity.  Without some skills, children will struggle to participate in some types of activities.” (http://canadiansportforlife.ca/physical-literacy/fundamental-skills-related-sport-opportunities)

Children should always be given a wide range of movement opportunities while they grow. When a child learns FMS early it provides them the foundation for physical literacy. In order for children to be successful in learning FMS and improving their physical literacy it is important that they feel safe and comfortable while doing so. Adults should provide an environment where children can learn new skills, build off existing ones, and create confidence in their ability to move (eg. our YMCA sports programs!). If children feel confident in their abilities they might want to try different activities and increase their movement vocabulary which then increases their physical literacy!

At the YMCA of Western Ontario we have focused our sports programs on 3 different stages: Active Start, FUNdamental, and Learn to Train. This covers the ages of 3 – 12.

Active Start
Active Start could arguably be one of the most important stages. Research suggests that an early Active Start enhances development of brain function, physical coordination, gross motor skills, posture, and balance. Researchers also suggest an active start helps children build confidence, social skills, emotional control, and imagination while reducing stress and improving sleep. Active play strengthens bones, muscles and the brain, and establishes connections between all of them.

During the Active Start stage children need to develop a range of body control (balance, moving the arms and legs in rhythmic ways to music, and developing coordination), locomotor (eg. crawling, walking, running, skipping, jumping, leaping, rolling), and sending and receiving object skills (rolling a ball, throwing, catching, kicking and hitting things with a bat or stick). This stage focuses on building the foundation to successfully learn FMS in the next stage by learning agility, balance, coordination, and speed. At this stage children should be exposed to structured and unstructured activities that challenge and incorporate different body movements.

Physical Literacy Soccer Active Start Outcomes
Physical Literacy Soccer Active Start Card

The FUNdamental stage is for ages 6 – 9. At this stage, children are motivated by FUN, friends, and self-esteem, hence the stage name FUNdamental. During this time children should be exposed to FMS as well as continuing to strengthen their agility, balance, coordination, and speed. They should practice their skills in a fun, challenging, multi-sport environment.

Exposure to a variety of sports will help develop interest and create motivation at this stage. It is important to limit formal competition at this stage to allow the child to develop skills in a comfortable, supportive environment. Formal competition brings forward concepts that are too difficult for most young children to understand and can be detrimental to their development. For example, a U7 soccer team may have just lost a game but they played very well. Most of the players will be focused on the fact that they didn’t win and not on the awesome plays they made. They also will not focus on what they can learn from the game to help them improve next time and some may be discouraged to play again.

Learning FMS at this stage is the key to overall development of physical literacy. Think of physical literacy as a new language your body needs to learn. Like any language it takes time to master, however it is easier to learn at a young age while the brain is quickly developing. Failure to create a solid foundation for physical literacy prior to the growth spurt could limit the ability to develop specific sport skills. This also could mean a negative impact on their desire to continue lifelong physical activity and limit their opportunities to develop as an athlete. If the child doesn’t feel confident, comfortable, or motivated, why would they want to do the activities that make them feel that way?

Physical Literacy Soccer FUNdamentals Card
Physical Literacy Soccer FUNdamental Outcomes

Learn to Train
The Learn to Train stage is for ages 9 – 12. During this stage the youth should be starting to convert their FMS into fundamental sport skills. Fundamental sport skills are FMS applied to a sport situation: for example, kicking a soccer ball, running a sprint, jumping up for a basketball rebound, and catching a baseball. At this point they are ready to train in more formalized methods and need focus on general sport skills suitable to multiple activities. This stage represents a sensitive period of accelerated adaptation to skills training and fine motor control, and ends where the growth spurt begins (more difficult to develop new sport skills).

Just like the FUNdamental stage, it is important to avoid excessive single sport training. It is still too early for specialization even though it’s likely they develop a preference for a sport. This can be detrimental to later stages of athlete development. For example, if a child in this stage only ever learns how to throw in baseball and never practices how to throw in other sports they will have a much harder time retraining their body and develop as an athlete. Excessive single sport training at this stage also promotes a one-sided development and increases the likelihood of injury and burn out. Boys and girls in this stage like to practice their skills and see their improvement. This time is important for training more than competing as it is suggested to be 70% practice and 30% competing.

Although we have discussed the importance of developing skills by certain ages, there is time for remedial work. It is true that if a child goes too long without learning a skill, learning it may become more difficult. It’s important to recognize this as early as possible to help the child overcome the learning deficit. This will help them catch up and allow them to be fully active with their friends and peers while feeling confident. Remedial instruction can begin in this stage (usually around age 10).

Physical Literacy Soccer Learn to Train Outcomes
Physical Literacy Soccer Learn to Train Card

The Ontario Government set a goal in January 2012 to reduce childhood obesity by 20 per cent in five years. With this goal the Ontario Ministry of Health created the Healthy Kids Panel who developed a strategy that they think would have the biggest impact on child health. One of the strategies was to create healthy communities. To easily answer the question “why are we implementing this into our YMCA programs?”: because that’s just what we do, we build healthy communities. The YMCA of Western Ontario has a huge role in impacting the health and wellness of our community members which is why we are so passionate about providing quality sports programs to our youngest citizens.  Now more than ever is the perfect time to get our kids active! According to the Ontario Ministry of Health only 9% of Canadian children between the ages of 5 to 17 are getting 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. Why aren’t our kids moving? We live in a time where sedentary behaviour is more common than not but Canadian Sport for Life is also wondering if our kids just need to get back to basics. Many times schools are finding that children haven’t learned the basic FMS they need to move confidently so they lack the motivation to even try. That’s why we’ve designed our sports programs the way we have to equip our participants with the skills they need to participate in different sports and physical activities! Be on the look out for our Physical Literacy sport programs each session and register your child in them today!

If you are interested in learning more about Physical Literacy and the impacts on your children check out the following links:

Canadian Sport for Life

No Time to Wait: The Health Kids Strategy
The above is a report put together by the Healthy Kids Panel outlining the issues we are facing and their suggestions on improvement.

Results from the 2016 Report Card – ParticipACTION
ParticipACTION puts together a report card each year focusing on certain issues facing our Canadian children and areas for improvement.

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