Jennifer Konopaki’s enthusiasm is infectious. As the Director of Active Lives for WinSport Canada ― and a mom of two children ages 5 and 6 ― she’s had the opportunity to learn firsthand how important fundamental movement skills are.
Jennifer’s been the driving force behind helping the Calgary-based organization develop an impressive physical literacy program … one that’s had a profound impact on the lives of children.
Here, she tells the compelling story of how the program began, how it’s evolved, and why she’s so excited by the results she’s seeing.
How did the process of integrating physical literacy take shape at Winsport?
As a leadership group we realized that we needed to incorporate physical literacy elements into our programming, and everyone thought, “well how are we going to do this … we don’t have a budget … what does this look like?”
And one day, during the winter, when the ski and snowboard school was going on, I happened to look out my window. There was a school group there to learn how to alpine ski. They were warming up at the bottom of the lift, and the instructor had them hopping on one leg up the hill about 20 feet, and then hopping down on the other leg … then doing a multitude of body movement skills that were not related to skiing or snowboarding in any way.
The instructor had incorporated physical literacy elements into the warm-up of their downhill ski lesson. And that ski instructor had not been trained. I pulled the team over and said, “Look, it’s happening right there. That’s an outstanding instructor who’s been instructing for a long time, and is doing it almost intuitively. We just need to figure out how to bottle that for younger, not as experienced instructors. And don’t tell me you can’t incorporate it into every, single thing. Whether it’s hockey, or skating, or mountain biking…”
The development of physical literacy activities at WinSport has really improved over the past year in particular. How did the process evolve?
There’s definitely a movement that’s happened. Last year we tried to enrich our programming with physical literacy. This year we are doing. And that’s the distinction. There’s no way we could have accomplished what we’re accomplishing now if we hadn’t at least just tried.
What’s changed is that last year we tried to do things in isolation. We tried to create our own lesson plans. We tried to train our own staff. And we tried to see it through. And the feedback we got from the kids was, “boring…” or “not my favourite activity” or “not great.” Whereas this year we reached out and leveraged the expertise around us. We brought in a leading expert, Dr. Dean [Kriellaars], who trained the staff and provided us with circus training and circus lesson plans. We bought physical literacy equipment kits. We connected the dots for the staff, gave them the tools that they needed, and put them through a week of training as part of the job.
So we’ve blended it in. It’s part of camp training, period. You go through high five, you go through physical literacy, and you go through policies & procedures. And you do a site tour and run through all the activities. Ready, set, go. It’s part of the formula now. We’ve made a commitment that physical literacy programming is the backbone of everything.
You’ve seen a marked improvement?
Immediately. The quality is second-to-none ― you can’t even compare last year to this year. Now when I walk around and watch the physical literacy activity sessions, I’m just ecstatic, because these kids are moving; they’re developing skills right before your eyes. The instructors are easily facilitating the activities sessions with a sense of purpose … and it’s really amazing. Perhaps the best part is the feedback we got from the instructors after they were trained. They would say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that this was going to be so simple for me to do, and now I have the confidence and tools to go forward and do it.”
What are the most important ingredients to getting children to try new activities?
They need a safe, positive, encouraging environment … coupled with leadership.
Is it safe to say that the better trained the instructors are, the more likely the kids are to have fun engaging in these activities?
Absolutely. The instructors have bought-in. And the way you get them to buy-in ― just like with the parents ― is that you have to define it, you have to connect the dots, you have to provide the meaning, and you have to train them in how to deliver it. And that’s a critical, critical ingredient. The instructors have the confidence and a better understanding of what they’re doing. Immediately that equals quality instruction … which equals fun.
What are some examples of WinSport activities that are working well?
We’ve gone from maybe one physical literacy activity, to ski jump, archery, biathlon, and so on. Last year they did one session of fundamental movement skills; now these kids are doing 3 to 4 a week. The quality, the fun, and the level of engagement is now at a level that it needs to be. And the kids are having a great time. We’ve also incorporated a free play session into our daily schedule. The schedule goes home with parents, and it says, ‘free play’, and then ‘physically enriched’. Around our park we have lots of trees … and we have half hour sessions where the kids go out into the trees and they have an area where they have free play ― they can explore and discover, facilitating their own session. The instructor is just there for supervision and guidance.
What improvements have you noticed in the kids?
I see what’s happening every day right in front of me. I’ve been up to the ski jump, for example, where I’ve watched kids being pushed outside their comfort zone; performing a skill that they’ve never performed before, regardless of their age and ability. They have their ski-jump skis and boots on, and they’re scared, they’re uneasy, they’re looking up into their instructors eyes and questioning whether they can do this or not. Then there’s that moment where the instructor says, “OK, we’re gonna go…”
And then you see these same kids once they’ve made it to the bottom … and they’re ecstatic. They’re just so proud of themselves. You see immediate validation, immediate increase in self-confidence. They run up the hill and they’re ready to do it again. That little boy at the top of the hill was not the same boy once he reached the bottom of the hill. It was a magic moment. (See The risky business of being brave.)
I took that back to the instructors and said, “You guys have to understand the power of what you’re doing here ― these kids are transforming right before you because you’re constantly encouraging them to do new things.”
Our philosophy in camp is: “The only failure is not to try.” It’s important to try as many things as possible, and connect with parents on that level as well; stress that it’s important to expose kids to a multitude of different activities.
Are the parents noticing a difference in their children?
We’re seeing the transformation on a community level right before our eyes. In fact, one parent came up to me last week and said, “I don’t know what it is; camp is different this year. I can see the changes in my child when I pick him up at the end of the day.”
And that just gave me goose bumps.
You have the kids fill out physical literacy journals. How does that help?
We’ve always had arts & crafts. At one point we were thinking about removing that in favor of being more activity-based. But in talking to Dr. Dean at the International Physical Literacy Conference, he strongly recommended that we keep arts & crafts, but that we change how we facilitate that session.
So we decided to have the kids create a journal where they can document their journey throughout the week; whether through pictures or words, and then immediately you have a tool that they can take home at the end of the week and use to help connect with their parents on an emotional level. The parent can then go through the journal with their child and the child can articulate what they did, and what they loved. Right away you’ve got a starting point for a conversation, and you have a starting point for a parent to, in turn, become emotionally connected to what we’re trying to do as public programmers.
That’s the concept behind it. Whether the child draws a picture of themselves throwing, or going down the water slides, it doesn’t matter.
The National Post recently published an article about physical literacy, in which some views were expressed that the concept was just one more thing parents had to worry about in their already busy lives … or that it was ridiculous to have to “choreograph” a child’s play. What do you say to people with busy schedules, or who might view physical literacy as unnecessary or counter-intuitive?
I think what we used to take for granted is now gone. It’s unfortunate that in today’s age we need to facilitate things that were once commonly accepted: walking to school, roaming and exploring, building forts, playing openly until dark, being sent outside when it’s raining and snowing … and so forth. Whether we like it or not, that’s just not the reality of the environment that today’s kids are being raised in.
If you had any advice for today’s busy parents, who want to ensure that their children are getting the activities they need, what would it be?
I would say start right at the beginning with the basics. Which is to say, knowing is everything. Knowing the definition. Having an awareness of the concept. So, for example, when you’re at the playground after school, you might have a tendency to pack everyone up and get home. Instead, it’s important to understand that the time on the playground is valuable, that you shouldn’t drag your kids away from the playground; you shouldn’t always rush home after soccer. Instead, you’re going to hang out.
Don’t be impatient. Let them have their 60 minutes. There’s nothing more important than what’s happening right there. Take the time and let them develop movement skills right before your eyes, and help them connect the dots for the rest of their lives. It’s important to understand the value of that as part of the critical development of your child.
Definition, awareness, and understanding ― it really can be that simple.