Why developing physical literacy is so important for kids

There are lots of factors that influence how active kids are, including how active their parents are, and whether their homes, schools, and neighbourhoods are good places to play. One thing’s for sure though: kids are more active when they’re having fun.

Yet what if your kids say that playing sports, skipping rope, riding their bikes, going for a hike, or even running around outside isn’t “fun” for them. What if they’d rather play video games or watch a show than go out and play?

Recent research offers one clue why this may be: it’s not fun to fail.

In a study of 2,000 primary school children between the ages of five and 12 in Ireland, Dublin City University researchers found that as many as one in four children could not run properly. Half could not kick a ball properly, and fewer than one in five could throw a ball. These are all skills that most children should be able to master by age eight, according to the study team.

As the study’s researchers note, between the ages of eight and 10, skill development begins to plateau. Those who have not yet acquired fundamental movement skills such as throwing, catching, balancing, and skipping are at greater risk of dropping out of sports and choosing more sedentary activities instead of active recreation in their teen years and beyond.


Related read: Easy activities to help your kids master movement skills on land


In a news release about the study, researcher Dr. Johann Issartel noted that it’s critical for children to develop the confidence and competence to keep playing into adolescence and discover fun and satisfying ways to keep moving when they reach adulthood.

“These findings highlight core issues that teachers, parents and coaches need to address,” Dr. Issartel said. “If the current generation of children can’t throw and catch in basic situations, why would they choose to play if they aren’t good at it? ‘It is not fun,’ that’s what they say, and if it is not fun they won’t play.”

When a child hasn’t developed the fundamental movement skills to keep up with his or her peers when they’re running around the schoolyard or tossing a ball around, the fun factor evaporates. Unfortunately, kids can end up concluding—wrongly—that they’ll never be good at sports or that being active just isn’t fun. 

When that fun factor’s missing, kids turn to other activities that make them feel good. These days, that often that means kids are turning to screen-based entertainment or other sedentary activities.

What can parents, teachers, and coaches do to help kids find the fun? The key is to support kids in developing physical literacy.

What is physical literacy? Simply put, physical literacy is when kids have developed the skills, confidence, and love of movement to be physically active for life.

Five simple ways to develop physical literacy:

  1. Start encouraging active play as early as possible—physical literacy begins in infancy. Is your child under three? Try these activities to develop physical literacy in babies and toddlers. 
  2. Encourage young children to play a variety of sports and make sure even “sporty” kids get lots of time for unstructured free play outside. Find out why.
  3. Allow children to engage in daring play such as climbing trees, wading in streams, or jumping from high places. Worried about injuries? Read our tips on how to assess risk so you can keep adventurous kids safe.
  4. Model and enforce healthy screen time habits, to ensure that time spent playing video games or watching TV doesn’t get in the way of active play, sleep, mealtime, or face-to-face time with family and friends. Learn how to keep screen time in check.
  5. Help kids find fun ways to be active. It’s okay if they don’t want to play team sports. There are lots of ways we can move our bodies, and many of them don’t require special scheduling, expensive equipment, or a coach. Just check out these 10 ways your child can develop physical literacy without playing sports.

If you’ve got older children who are struggling to throw or catch a ball or feel ashamed for being the slowest runner in the class, don’t give up. It’s never too late. While acquiring movement skills comes easier to younger children, people at any age can learn to run, take up a new sport or activity, and find activities they can enjoy.

Developing physical literacy is a lifelong journey to discover how you love to move.

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