Bringing Physical Literacy to life in the Gymnasium


Margaret Whitehead first proposed the concept of physical literacy in 1993. Since that time, physical educators at all levels of study have adopted physical literacy as a guiding principle, yet at the same time struggled to put it into action. What does physical literacy look like in the classroom, whether face-to-face or in a digital setting? Physical educators are traditionally resistant to change; most have lived their craft through their own participation in sport. How do we transfer this concept into the gymnasium so that our students may transfer their learning to a physically active life?


Most physical education curricula refer to physical literacy, some such as SHAPE America, include physical literacy in every one of its national physical education standards. For example, Standard Two states, the physically literate individual applies knowledge of concepts, principles, and strategies and tactics related to movement and performance.


The early work in Canada, centred at Brock University, provided us with a definition that perhaps sought to provide us guidance in how we apply physical literacy in the classroom,

Individuals who are physically literate move with competence

in a wide variety of physical activities that benefit the development

of the whole person. 7 Physically literate individuals consistently

develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate,

apply, and analyze different forms of movement. They are able

to demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently,

creatively and strategically across a wide range of health-related

physical activities. These skills enable individuals to make healthy,

active choices throughout their life span that are both beneficial to

and respectful of themselves, others, and their environment.

(Mandigo et al., 2009)


Still, what does it all mean in the gymnasium?

  • Do we focus on fundamental movement skills as we did early on in the adoption of physical literacy?

  • Is physical education in a digital setting guided by Joe Wicks, the “body coach” who sprung to fame during the first phase of the lockout with a series of boot camp-style workouts?

  • Is teaching physical literacy to be found in the instructional model used by the physical educator?

Or, as the Americans have done, can physical literacy be taught through the development of grade-specific outcomes for each standard?


An example from outdoor pursuits, grade eight/standard two – Implements safe protocols in a self-selected outdoor activity. Like all those outcomes in curricular documents for any subject discipline, what does this mean, and what does it look like in the classroom? Is inquiry-based learning the direction we need to understand physical literacy in the classroom, where outcomes are brought to focus through specific indicators, and student learning is developed through guiding questions and experiences?


Whether physical education is online or face-to-face, it is so much more than physical activity. Perhaps, Whitehead’s adoption of a monist philosophy; suggesting the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects are interconnected and should guide our teaching practices in the gymnasium or through the computer. A holistic approach to teaching physical education will reinforce a positive association to physical activity and further develop a person’s/students physical literacy. Considering one’s social-emotional learning, physical abilities, cognitive development, and perhaps most importantly, how they view themselves when teaching physical education should allow us to help support the development of an individual’s physical literacy.


In the end, we teach people not sports nor fitness, or even health. We most certainly understand that the development of fundamental movement skills, mastery of sport-specific movements, and understanding how one’s body works, amongst other traditional physical education outcomes, will support the development of physical literacy. Our ultimate goal is that these concepts and skills transfer to a lifetime of learning and physical enjoyment. We want our students to feel what we feel when playing or participating in our given sport or activity. We want it done well, and we want our students to begin to feel what ‘well’ feels like. Going back to one of the first understandings of physical literacy in Canada that asked us to help students to participate in physical activity in a wide variety of environments, we want all individuals to know the joy and thrill of skating on ice or sliding on ice under control when throwing a stone in curling. Maxine Greene (1995), taught us that part of teaching is helping people to create themselves. As we develop our teaching for a digital world, consider physical literacy as a holistic concept and the all too important task of helping all of our students to be able to enjoy and learn new movements so that they enjoy physical activity throughout their lives.



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