Physical literacy or physical education: Which is it?

    A recent article on the website of the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (ACHPER), which you can read here, noted that use of the terms physical education and physical literacy may be confusing to the public and professionals alike. One comment critical of the term physical literacy and quoted in the article laments that "Combined we have spent over 60 years investigating ways to improve physical education, and we are fairly certain that adopting a new label will not address the barriers that hinder it."

    Is 'physical literacy' simply a new label for PE? No, it isn't. The term 'physical literacy' may have been used early in the 20th century but not as part of any 'movement' within the profession. Indeed, there was very little of a physical education profession back then. We can argue about it but current use of the term began with Margaret Whitehead's paper The Concept of Physical Literacy in 2001. Whitehead discussed what the concept might mean in terms of movement and education, and what the term could mean on a variety of levels, most importantly its relationship to physical education.

    Whitehead's paper is an interesting read if you're in the profession but a bit pedantic if you're not. Nonetheless it highlights the fact that physical education and physical literacy are not the same thing.

    A better understanding of these terms can be reached if we look at them as process and outcome. Physical literacy is what we hope will be the outcome of the systematic, years-long physical education process. But it's not just a product of school-based PE, it's a result of many different opportunities that youngsters have throughout their lives to participate in activity, sports, and school physical education classes.

    Lost in the argument over what the definition of physical literacy is, or should be, is the explanation of why it is so important. A physically literate population is one that is healthier long-term where people participate in many different kinds of physical activity. Because of this healthcare costs will be lower. It's a society where sport development programs have an abundance of participants and the push for elite performance is common.

    People who are not physically literate are much less likely to participate in physical activities both as youngsters and as they get older. The reason is that they simply don't have the skills needed to play games, exercise, or participate in sports. As a result they become spectators or couch potatoes. Societies with low participation in physical activity will experience detrimental impacts on overall health, especially in the aging population. Lifestyle disease will be abundant: Heart disease, stroke, and diabetes will be common.

    Lack of physical literacy is not the sole cause of inactivity that leads to lifestyle disease but it is one that we can try to prevent with direct action early in a person's life. Lack of physical literacy is also not the only reason that countries don't have strong sport cultures but it is one roadblock to developing such a culture that can be removed early in life.

    In developing a society of physically literate adults we need to make sure that we have good PE programs in our schools, good PE teachers who understand the role they are playing in the health of the nation, and long-term opportunities for all to participate in instructional, training, and competitive sport programs.

    --------
    Bill Price is the Chief Information Officer at USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

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    11. How to do the measurements for determining peak height velocity (PHV) - 24 October 2016
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