9 ways to tell if your child is physically literate

February 28, 2013 17 Comments »
9 ways to tell if your child is physically literate

By definition, physical literacy comprises a complex blend of movement skills, physical awareness, cognitive understandings and even general attitudes about physical activity and sport. Researchers who study the subject produce sophisticated tests and measures for deciding who is physically literate and who is not, and they have a laundry list of criteria that they examine in the process.

But what about the average parent? Is there any quick way to assess if your child is on the road to developing physical literacy?

At the risk of oversimplification, Active for Life has produced a short list of nine simple physical tests and questions to assess the state of your child’s physical literacy. These questions describe a few of the simple abilities and attitudes that are commonly associated with physical literacy in early school age children.

In short, if you can answer yes to these questions, your child is probably making good progress in developing basic physical literacy. For questions where you answer no, your child probably needs some attention in that area. And if your child is nearing middle-school age and has difficulty with these tests, then there are significant skills and capacities they need to address.

Warning: Research scientists in physical literacy, please avert your gaze now. This article does not provide a comprehensive list of physical literacy attributes or testing protocols. This list is merely offered with a view towards giving mom and dad a quick glimpse of some of the qualities that comprise physical literacy.

1. Forward roll

Can your child do a basic forward roll on the floor? The forward roll is a basic gymnastic movement that demonstrates your child has developed a reasonable degree of flexibility and coordination, as well as proprioception (knowing where the body is as it moves through space). Simply understanding that they need to tuck their head to their chest is also significant in their basic understanding of the movement.

2. Flat-footed squat

Can your child do a flat-footed squat from a standing position and then stand up again? The flat-footed squat is considered a standard test of physical literacy by researchers and health practitioners. This movement indicates a blend of important qualities: flexibility, coordination and balance, not to mention strength. If your child has trouble keeping their heels flat on the ground while they descend into a squat all the way to the floor and stand up again, or if they lose balance and fall over in the process, your child needs to work on balance as well as flexibility, coordination, and strength in key muscle groups in the legs and core.

3. Swim (comfortable in water)

Can your child swim? Water is one of the four key environments of sport and physical activity, along with land, air and snow/ice. Swimming is the basis of a multitude of water sports ranging from competitive racing and diving to water polo and surfing, and it is also an essential skill for lifetime safety around the water. Pretty important when you consider that 75% of our planet’s surface is covered in water.

4. Throw a ball

It may seem a bit corny or simplistic, but the ability to throw a ball is a good general indicator of a person’s physical coordination and development of movement skills. It’s not just about being able to play quarterback for the New England Patriots in the NFL or pitch for the Blue Jays in major league baseball. If you consider how throwing was an essential skill for our distant ancestors who were hunting with spears or knocking coconuts out of trees by hurling stones, you can see how throwing has always been a natural part of our movement skill repertoire. It involves a complicated mix of balance and coordination between dozens if not hundreds of muscles, so it’s a good indicator of how much physical literacy a child has developed to date.

5. Strike an object

Can your child hit a ball with a bat? A puck with a hockey stick? A badminton bird with a racquet? See “Throw a ball” above. The same basic reasoning applies. Humans are distinguished from animals by our mastery of tools, and the great majority of our early tools were used to strike things. The only difference is that now we strike pucks and balls instead of other cavemen. (Sorry – cavepersons.)

 6. Land from jumping

Watch your child as they jump from a low platform, tree branch or park bench and land on their feet. Do they land with their knees aligned squarely above their feet and flex smoothly into a squat? Or do their knees collapse inwards and their legs generally go sixteen different directions? If your child can land a jump reasonably well, then hopping and other fundamental movement skills are also probably little problem for them.

7. One-leg balance test  

Ask your child to stand on one foot for 30 seconds without losing balance. Get them to put their hands on their hips and lift the knee of their non-standing leg as high as possible. Children often end up hopping all over the place and laughing because it is more difficult than it appears. The good news is that the challenge encourages them to practice and improve their time, so you are covertly promoting the development of their balance.

8. Confidence to try sports

Kids who have a reasonable degree of physical literacy feel confident trying a sport or physical activity that is new to them. They are confident because they know they have the basic skills in running, jumping and throwing to get started. And as time passes, they build further confidence as they experience additional successes in trying these new sports and activities.

9. Describe a movement skill or activity in words

In effect, verbal literacy is a part of physical literacy. Children who are fully physically literate should be able to describe their activity and movements accurately with the basic correct words. Why? Because words and naming used to describe movement reflect formal thinking and understanding of those same movements. It sounds a bit esoteric, but in truth it’s another good general indicator.

Did we miss something?

Do you think we missed an even more important fundamental skill for testing physical literacy? Leave your suggestion in our Comments section below, or start a discussion on our Facebook page.

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17 Comments

  1. Michelle February 20, 2016 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    I think types of running say much about physical literacy, as opposed to form (which you mentioned earlier is hard to assess as it can take specific expertise). For example, when I coach older children (grade 7+), I often find a group of children who are unable to run backwards, side step or skip. The reason I would include these is because they are foundational to many sport specific movements they will need to acquire to participate effectively in a variety of athletic endeavors. Also, they help with agility that is beneficial to anyone in or out of sport.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove February 22, 2016 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Running does say a lot about physical literacy, but as you say, it’s very difficult for the average parent to assess. As a soccer coach, I often teach basic running to kids ages 7-10 and I see huge improvements quickly. That includes forwards and backwards and side to side. I have an article coming soon on this exact subject — so stay tuned! It’s remarkably easy to teach kids to run when they are younger, but sadly it doesn’t seem to happen. As you say, running is essential to a host of other activities and sports — I wish more kids would be taught.

  2. Taryn Silver February 11, 2016 at 11:30 pm - Reply

    As a pediatric physiotherapist, I often look at how a child rises to standing. If he or she uses a half kneel position to come to standing, there is generally adequate pelvic and core stability for basic motor control.

  3. Leah October 15, 2014 at 4:03 am - Reply

    How do you encourage a 2 year old to keep his flat-footed squat – it just comes naturally to him, we’ve noticed but older kids tend to lose it. His mother squats down sometimes but she can only do the “Caucasian squat” ( heals up, 90 degree thighs)

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove October 15, 2014 at 11:59 am - Reply

      The only practical way to encourage him to “keep” his ability is perhaps to challenge him to do it occasionally as he gets to be 3, 4, and 5 years and older. You can make a game of it with him where you demonstrate the flat-footed squat (or attempt to!) and offer him the opportunity to better you. But anything you do should be playful and fun at these early ages — not an “exercise” per se. As well, it’s not a disaster if he temporarily loses his flat-footed squat. Adults can learn to do this movement, after all. The real key is making sure that he has lots of activity as he grows up, and that he develops an appreciation of the importance of maintaining his existing movement skills and learning new ones.

  4. Maggie December 12, 2013 at 8:37 am - Reply

    He’s got 5 and he is 15 months old. I think that he is well on his way. I think I will have to see if I can still do a forward roll. Not something I do every day!

  5. Kath Langley August 18, 2013 at 7:59 am - Reply

    I am immediately put off this whole article by the ludicrous expression”physically literate”. The word literate means able to read & write. Nothing to do with physical activity & the skills or lack of skills enabling a person to perform a set task in movement or gymnastics.

    • Blaine Kyllo
      Blaine Kyllo August 26, 2013 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Kath, for your comment.

      Literacy has come to refer to “competence or knowledge in a specific area” or “a state of proficiency” rather than refer only to reading and writing.

      As you know, English follows a descriptive rather than prescriptive grammar, and this means that word usage and meanings are always evolving.

      If you would like to learn more about the terminology and its usage, you might like to read about Margaret Whitehead’s seminal work in this area. She is a respected academic and a leading world expert on the subject of physical literacy.

  6. carrie June 1, 2013 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    How about skipping rope? It could either be turned for them or they can turn it themselves. This touches onto the rhythmic aspect of movement.

  7. Ian Craigon April 11, 2013 at 11:39 am - Reply

    I believe that proper walking and running form should be included in any assessment of basic physical literacy. What movements are more basic to human movement? Upright walking and running is a major difference between humans and other primates. I see elementary school age and older children still in our schools who are hampered in their skill development by a poor or inefficient walk or run form. Secondly, I believe posture could be added to the list of test items. Proper erect and sitting postures enhance good growth and development and helps one avoid adopting inefficient and ineffective movement patterns in a variety of activities, and helps avoid muscle and joint problems, particularly in the important areas of the spine, hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove April 12, 2013 at 5:35 pm - Reply

      Correct walking and running form are very important. The only challenge is that they require a degree of expertise to do a proper assessment. As a soccer coach, I also frequently see kids who are hampered in their development and performance as players because they do not have proper running technique. If I had to guess, I would say perhaps one in ten might have proper technique by age 15, and that’s generally because they pursued track and field or cross country running at some point. Posture is also a good suggestion for the reasons you list. Mom was right when she told us to stand up / sit up straight!

  8. tanya March 19, 2013 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    I would maybe add being able to listen to a physical direction and be able to correspond the direction with any action listed above. I know there is verbal literacy…is there auditory-physical…I don’t know what you would term it…but having a sense of your own body movements seems to be a key missing link in at least one of my kids. I give a direction, he says I am doing it, I show him, he continues doing the same thing again and says he is doing the same thing. Maybe self body awareness? The only way I know how to help him on this is to continue to repeat the direction and manually move him into and through the position. Example, snow boarding this year, doing fine, can turn and go fast. But he is always leaning slightly back …his weight on his back foot. We kept telling him don’t lean. He always said I am not, etc. But it was very obvious that he was. (honestly it looked like he would fall over…or into the hill…possibly and partially maybe caution) Finally after adjusting his foot manually in our hand to show him how it felt if his foot didn’t have all the pressure on it seemed to make a huge difference. He improved about 100% just by fixing that, in one day. I think some kids just naturally have it, or they can watch someone do something and copy it and do well. My son just needs lessons in everything and then he is awesome :) Does this make any sense?

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove March 20, 2013 at 2:07 pm - Reply

      Great question! It sounds like your son is what is called a “kinesthetic learner,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. That is, he learns best by physically doing something. A perfect example of this is when you position his foot and move his limbs through the correct motion, and then he “gets” it. This is not uncommon in sport and physical activity, especially with children, though there is a wide range of learning styles among people (visual, auditory, and reading- or writing-preference learners are the other big ones). Most of us have more than one learning style, but we tend to lean towards one style more than the others. For example, when I teach the biomechanics of kicking a soccer ball to a group of kids, I use a combination of visual, auditory and kinesthetic teaching techniques because I want to reach everyone, and each child responds differently to each approach. It’s quite fascinating. It’s one of the things I love about coaching and teaching.

  9. Bill Walters March 5, 2013 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    I would add multi-joint push and pull type activities. For example a push press – quarter squat, hands at shoulders (could be holding a light weight), hips drive forwards and up as hands move straight overhead. A similar pull movement can be executed with or without resistance (start low and finish high).
    These activities are linked multi-joint movements that will show if the child can properly sequence movement.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove March 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm - Reply

      This is a good test! Though it might ask a bit much for most parents to do at home — some expertise required to know what to look for in this movement sequence. Perhaps a good reason for parents to get their child involved in a multi-sport or physical literacy program at a recreation centre.

  10. Mike Hudson March 5, 2013 at 6:22 am - Reply

    I agree with Dr. Dean as usaul – I would just add riding a bike and skating to the list.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove March 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      In the bigger picture, skating and riding a bike are definitely important skills, for sure — they just require a bit more outlay in terms of equipment and facility cost. Skiing would also fit in there, if money allows.

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