Developing physical literacy in children

Developing physical literacy in children


By Rick Howard, M.Ed., CSCS,*D

We live in an information era where there is abundant material highlighting the positive benefits of youth sports on children’s physical, emotional and social growth. At the same time, however, not all youth sports programs are creating a positive experience for all participants. It may be that youth sports leaders are still considering positive benefits only from an adult perspective, not from a youth perspective.

To help solve this issue, emerging industry strategies such as physical literacy and long-term athletic development (LTAD) have been introduced. While these terms have helped us see the need for a framework to improve the youth sports landscape by changing the paradigm to youth-focused, we need to consider how we implement youth sports in general, which traditionally have been adult-driven (focus on winning at all cost, emphasis on games played over meeting developmental needs, watered-down versions of the adult game, etc.).

Since kids get less exercise than ever before, have less muscle strength and fewer motor skills, in many cases have recess taken away, and there is overall less PE in schools, the youth sports program's role in creating a positive culture for skill development and fun is more important than ever. 

This blog gives everyone involved in community sports programs tools you can use to understand the latest jargon and implement sports programs that help develop the whole child, while not losing sight of the wonderful benefits youth sports provide.

First, let’s look quickly at the key terms:

Sports – what used to be considered the classic definition of sports included elements such as physical exertion, keeping score and entertainment. Sports is derived from the Old English word disport, which referred to “diversion from work or serious matters; recreation or amusement.” In the modern era of sports, these words have been too often replaced with serious business, elite, scholarship-driven and specialization. There is a push to give youth sports back to kids and focus on fun, competence and intrinsic motivation.

Physical literacy – physical literacy has taken on different meanings, as well. One way of looking at it comes from Dean Kreillars, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, who refers to physical literacy as “a gateway to an active lifestyle from childhood through to adulthood.”  Physical literacy is both a construct and an intervention in that physical literacy helps us to define what we mean by an active lifestyle and helps us attain it. Focusing on giving children opportunities to develop the skills, attitudes and behaviors to embrace physical activity from cradle-to-grave is our primary objective—sports is an excellent vehicle to reach this objective.

Long-term athletic development LTAD is a framework (not a one-size-fits-all model) for kids of all ages to pursue physical literacy. Long-term means cradle-to-grave; athletic means meeting kids where they are athletically and helping them build all skills; development means having a plan to enable kids to develop holistically so that the focus is on the process of engagement of physical activity, not trophy count. It’s all about youngsters, parents, coaches and administrators engaging in activity throughout the life course in both a fun and meaningful way.

Children – Piaget described an “operational stage” between the ages of 6-11 where children use concrete concepts to perform a variety of mental operations and thoughts. In other words, they can understand on a fundamental level skills, drills, tactics and strategies. This stage is also described as the stage between preschool and adolescence, where kids become capable and confident, when coached correctly. Children need to be children, not miniature adults. It is our responsibility to provide developmentally appropriate activities to them across childhood and adolescence.


Community sports administrators fill a unique role because of the connections they have with all community members – kids, parents, coaches, officials, community leaders, etc. They are role models for the creation and implementation of what youth sports should be. Here are some recommendations for community sports administrators to consider:

Help kids learn skills to play sports. We know there are two sets of skills kids need to be exposed to—fundamental movement skills and sports skills.

a.      Fundamental skills, as it sounds, describes the basic movement patterns kids need to develop physical literacy in a variety of situations, settings and surfaces. The greater the exposure to these movements the more likely kids will feel confident not only on the field, court, or pitch but also in the gym, park and life. Fundamental skills include running, stopping, landing, throwing and kicking. Many children are not being exposed to fundamental skills and time needs to be set to help them gain movement skill mastery.

b.      Sports skills are built on fundamental movement skills and lead to athleticism. Create a system within your program to add fundamental skills together (walking plus kicking, for example, then jogging plus kicking, etc.) We have swarm soccer because so many kids are not yet developmentally ready to combine motor skills into athletic patterns. The objective is for them all to master these skills at the developmentally correct time. Such objectives are the cornerstone of a successful youth sports program.

Structure youth programs to encourage the development of physical literacy skill

o   Create structure for all athletes to learn and play multiple positions within the sport. When I helped organize our middle school football program, for example, all athletes learned all positions on offense and defense, and special teams. We awarded more points for a PAT than a two-point conversion. Every player needed to play at least four plays on offense and on defense.

o   Create structure for all athletes to learn to play multiple sports. We found that being land-locked could work to our advantage. Since it was difficult to have soccer, lacrosse and field hockey all in the same season for middle school, high school and recreation leagues (we shared fields under an agreement with the City), we either moved or shortened the middle school season, encouraged cross-pollination of sports (ice hockey and lacrosse coaches and officials cross-trained for each other’s sport which increased the number of officials and coaches for each sport), and cross trained the kids to learn to integrate other sports concepts into their current sport, providing them with understanding of similarities and differences among different sports.

o   Encourage coaches to incorporate another sport into their practices for a few minutes. Every sport has its unique skill set and draws on some fundamental skills more than others. Why not incorporate some skills and movements into your practice? Have fun with it! Make it fun for the kids, too. Consider games that encourage the movements kids do not get in their current sport. Create movement challenges for kids to figure out on their own and in groups.

The sport experience needs to be individualized for every child. When designing youth sports programs, be mindful of providing a positive environment for all kids to work on motor skills, muscle strength and fun. Make it inclusive so that all kids are experiencing positive growth through sport. There is no benefit in belittling any player. Set standards for your program that address how to create the environment.

Instill social values in kids through sports. With the focus on winning and peak performance, sometimes programs play only the best players, do not challenge calls that give them an advantage, and argue with officials, coaches and even teammates. Here are a couple ideas to incorporate positive practices into your youth sports program:

  • Have a signal for players when mistakes are made so that they focus on the game, not the mistake.
  • Instill the Together Everyone Achieves More (T.E.A.M.) mentality. As coaches and program administrators, we need to create a culture where all kids are part of the team process—have a strategy for selection of activities in practice, give kids a voice, and get parents, coaches  and athletes on the same page (this article from Changing the Game Project is an excellent example of getting youth sports parent engaged in the process). Autonomy and intrinsic motivation should be another objective for all youth sports programs!

There are many strategies to guide youth sports to serve the best interests of youth participants. Educating all constituents as a unified team as soon as possible makes the path one that is shared and leads to the best results. Community sports programs have a critical role in positive youth development, leading to healthy communities. For an example of how it can be done, Nate Baldwin, community recreation leader in Appleton, Wisc., shared his success on this Changing the Game podcast. Feel free to use some of the strategies shared in this blog and share your successes.

Rick Howard is a doctoral candidate at Rocky Mountain University in Health Promotion and Wellness. He is an Assistant Professor in Applied Sports Science at West Chester University (Pa.). Howard is the Director of Fitness at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club, where he trains youth in fitness and sports performance. He organizes and co-leads LTAD Summits and Playgrounds nationwide, which bring local, grassroots individuals together to learn, share, and develop action and accountability plans for cradle-to-grave implementation of LTAD.

He contributes articles regularly on long-term athletic development (LTAD) and the application of concepts of pediatric exercise science for coaches, personal trainers, physical education teachers, and those who wish to improve the lives of our young people. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram @rihoward41

Rick Howard Physical Literacy Community

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