A Little About My Love/Hate Relationship with Physical Literacy

“We can’t know what a thing is, we can only know what it does.” (Can’t remember who said this)

I’m OK with Physical Literacy. Sometimes. On the surface.

Actually, I struggle with it. I struggle with it because sometimes I like it, sometimes I love it, and sometimes I hate it.

Sometimes I don’t even know what to think about it, or what I think about it.

Yes, it is conceptualized and defined differently by various people and organizations. No, there is no consensus on what it is. Yes, it can be confusing.

Totally understandable, though. Different contexts = different viewpoints.

But, for the most part, I am OK with the idea that in order for people to “arrange their lives in such a way that the physical activities they freely engage in make a distinctive contribution to their long term flourishing” (Macallister), they would need to have some level of competence, confidence, knowledge and motivation to do so. That makes intuitive sense.

As an ideal, a hope for the future, I’m OK with Physical Literacy. As an unrealizable goal that informs and directs our policy and practice, I’m OK with it.

But as an expectation, a mandate, a checklist, a rubric, a tool for measuring “success,” a burden of excellence, a universal prescription, I DO NOT LIKE IT!

And as a concept that assumes it is solely up to the “individual” to choose whether or not to be or become Physically Literate, I DO NOT LIKE IT!

Basically, what I struggle with is the idea that Physical Literacy is an objective truth that can be identified and measured regardless of context, and that, by implication, if one does not meet the criteria for being Physically Literate, then one is Physically Illiterate.

For me, everybody is Physically Literate, just like everybody is educated, FOR THEIR WORLD, FOR THEIR UNIQUE CONTEXT. They may not be as literate or educated as they can be or will be, or even want to be, but they are as literate and educated as they could be, up to this point, and that needs to be respected, not denied or shamed.

The socio-cultural-ecological-ethical-political-economic dimensions are significantly under-recognized with regards to Physical Literacy. So many factors influence one’s degree of Physical Literacy, and it is important that we recognize them. If any of them need adjusting, then it is our duty to adjust them! Not the kids.

And when I say “them,” I don’t mean PE teachers. I mean all of us. Each community. Each organization. Each politician. Each person with power (like super rich athletes who could be building parks in their old neighborhoods instead of buying 10 cars). I would imagine that a universal basic income, universal early childcare, and more parks and after-school programs would do more to increase Physical Literacy than all of us “teaching” (and testing and grading) skills.

But typically, or at least too often, in PE, we conceive of Physical Literacy as something one has or is all by one’s self, or all by one’s own doing and choosing. And this just isn’t the case.

Think about it this way, and this is only one or two of many examples:

We can “teach” all sorts of skills in PE, and maybe our students can even “learn” them. But if they go home to a neighborhood where they can’t play outside because there are no parks, it’s unsafe, or they don’t have any opportunities to engage in organized sports, they will stay indoors, play video games, and never utilize their “Physical Literacy.” Is that the kid’s fault? Is this their choice not to move?

Likewise, is it their choice to have parents who buy tons of processed food? Is it their choice the political and economic system they are in is unjust? Did they choose to have an immature father who stressed the hell of out their mother when they were developing as a fetus? Did they choose to move five times in elementary school?

No.

But all these things affect one’s Physical Literacy. And none of them were the kid’s choice. But when they get to our class and don’t feel like participating, for whatever reason, we take it personal and put that straight on the kid and, by golly, they are gonna develop their Physical Literacy whether they like it or not.

I don’t think that’s fair.

And then, on top of that, we may even have a report card outlining all the Grade-Level-Outcomes (decided by whom?) and for each section it says something like “The Physically Literate Individual” does or values or has x, y, and z. And how do you think that kid might measure-up to all of those requirements? Not well. And guess what that means? They are Physically Illiterate, that’s what it means.

But I disagree. I think that kid (and the other kid who suffers from some of the neglect that comes with the poverty of affluence) is Physically Literate.

We can help them get better though. That’s what we are here for. We are their advocates. Their partners.

Not their judge. Not their superior (don’t even get me started on the way we enact power in schools…see here and here).

So I don’t think Physical Literacy should ever be judged, evaluated, or graded. Because who are you, who am I, or who are we to ever tell our kids that they SHOULD have these skills? Or that they should want to have these skills? Or that they need to have them some day?

Sure, we want them to develop these skills. We want them to engage in a wide variety of movements. We know (or think we know) that all these things we want for them will only make their lives better. We want them to understand that moving is healthy, but none of these things should ever be imposed. And in many places, at least near me, I see these things imposed all the time!! All the time!!! Even by younger teachers.

But they have a different problem, the younger teachers. They don’t roll out the balls or play baseball for 4 weeks like the older PE teachers. No, they over-control. They over-manage. They over-measure. And they think they are doing their kids a favor, because, you know….standards and outcomes must be met, like they are written on some tablets someone brought down from the mountain.

So what am I trying to say?

Yes, we want people to be Physically Literate (whatever that means). That is a good thing.

But no, you don’t, nor does anybody else determine or judge whether someone is or isn’t Physically Literate or Illiterate. What determines this is the person and the context. And time. And a lot more.

It is a journey. A becoming.

And we can help.

There is much more to say about Physical Literacy. So much more to it (good and bad)….. but I’m just gonna stop right here….for now.