Pursuing physical literacy from cradle to grave

Pursuing physical literacy from cradle to grave


By Rick Howard, M.Ed., CSCS, *D

Kids do not get the opportunities to play that we had growing up. No more riding bikes until the porch light goes on. No more street hockey or football or even kickball. No more making up games or playing H-O-R-S-E. Unless it is a structured sports program, kids likely don’t get the opportunity to play.

Play is a fundamental right of every child, as expressed in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Kids should be able to rest and enjoy leisure, including play and recreational pursuits, and these pursuits should be developmentally appropriate and available to all children. It can be argued that our current educational and recreational systems, including youth sports, are not in compliance with Article 31.

In school, physical education has been minimized in favor of academic testing (a move being shown to not have a positive effect on learning). The PE curriculum has changed from sports-focused to lifetime wellness focused. Both are important—it is not an either/or proposition. Recess has taken a hit in an effort to curb bullying and other inappropriate behavior while sacrificing the greatest opportunity in school for kids to interact with one another, resolve conflicts, and get much needed physical activity.

After school, the ability to let kids go out and play has been reduced in many areas because of safety, family structure, and/or lack of opportunity. In youth sports, the emphasis has shifted from participation-based play to performance-based competition, where only the best kids (not properly defined or age-appropriate) get to play and the others are excluded. And we wonder why there is a childhood obesity problem!


It is no wonder, then, that frameworks and strategies have become necessary to try to get kids to be active and enjoy sports. Long-term athletic development (LTAD) is a framework to foster the positive physical, psychosocial, technical, and tactical development of children (for more information on LTAD, click this NAYS blog piece). LTAD promotes the concept of physical literacy, which helps kids prepare to play, play better, and keep playing for life. Kids learn how to perform the fundamental movements like skipping, running, throwing, stopping and landing that will help them be proficient movers in sports, recreational pursuits, and play. They also learn to integrate the sports-specific skills and fitness attributes needed to move with competence and confidence.

When cultivating physical literacy, coaches and parents should integrate these five key concepts:

  1. Think of LTAD and physical literacy as the opportunity to prepare kids for play, the scaffolding to improve their ability to enjoy play, and the framework for them to play from cradle to grave.
  2. Physical literacy is a process. There is always something new to learn; always new sports, games, exercises, and activities to try; and always time across the lifespan to try something new and improve your ability to play and be physically active.
  3. A key concept of physical literacy is movement within a given level of endowment. This means that we all can get better at moving but we all can’t be the best at everything. The earlier we can embrace the importance of moving, the better chance we have to be proficient movers. The earlier we focus on the long-term benefits of being active, less pressure is placed upon elite performance and more emphasis is placed on health and wellbeing. Think of it like school subjects: we expect all kids to develop the foundation of math, science, and language, but we don’t expect kids to be pros at them in 5th grade.
  4. Physical literacy develops athleticism, which is the ability to integrate physical activity, play, recreation, sports, and instruction in PE to develop competence and confidence in the ability to move and to solve movement problems (getting from Point A to Point B on a field of play, for example).
  5. We are all athletes. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes and all abilities. We have societally narrowed our thinking of athletes only as elite athletes—this needs to change!


Just as it is important to learn the fundamentals of reading and writing, it is important to learn the fundamentals of movement. The best way for young kids to do this is to play. There are three structures of play, based on the degree of adult involvement:

  • Structured play is 100% adult involvement in making the rules, setting the boundaries, and deciding who does what when. Organized youth sports is an example of structured play.
  • Semi-structured play is more 50/50—adults set rules and boundaries, but kids get to decide who does what and when within those rules and boundaries. Recess is an example of semi-structured play.
  • Unstructured play is 0% adult involvement. Kids set the rules and boundaries and decide who does what and when. Free play is an example of unstructured play.

All three structures are important learning platforms for kids. The biggest issue facing kids at the developmental level is that they are too often forced to only engage in structured play, usually in the form of being on a youth sports team. Youth sports coaches, therefore, have a huge responsibility to enrich positive youth development by providing kids the opportunity to engage in semi-structured play and free play. This can be done before, during, or after practice and also encouraged away from the sports setting.


Even while youngsters are preparing to play, the experience of play is invaluable. Kids learn best by doing and play is no exception. It gives movement a context. That’s why the three structures of play are so important. Focusing solely on one structure does not provide kids the best developmentally appropriate experience. Help kids find out what sports, games, and activities they enjoy and introduce them to other opportunities to play with which they are unfamiliar. To maximize enjoyment of learning to enjoy play, use the technique of scaffolding, which suggests providing challenges just beyond the child’s reach or comfort zone, give prompts, ask questions, model the skill, build upon acquired skills, and praise the process, not just the result.


Mounting evidence suggests that not being active may be more hazardous to health than smoking and that youth participation in organized sports helps with bone health into adulthood. It is critically important to reverse the trends of 70 percent of kids dropping out of sports by age 13, 25 percent not participating at all, and only 20 percent of adults reporting adequate amounts of physical activity.

Play is an important developmental construct that needs to be embraced cradle-to-grave. Parents and coaches must instill a love of the game and of play, create a positive environment to build on every child’s success, and model healthy behavior and play with the aspiring athletes under your watch. We all know the positive outcomes sport can have in kids’ lives. We need to balance the amount of structure we provide in kids’ lives to keep them actively pursuing physical literacy across the lifespan.

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

Play Activity Participation Health

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