Len Saunders by Len Saunders

Baby walkingMost parents recognize the importance of nurturing literacy in their children. Learning to read and write are celebrated milestones. Parents start early by reading to their infants, introducing them to the alphabet and phonics in the early preschool years, and then sending them off to kindergarten to solidify their pre-reading skills and becoming novice independent readers and writers by the end of first grade. These skills are further developed and enhanced over the ensuing 11+ years of formal education and into and throughout adulthood.

While a great deal of energy and attention is rightfully devoted to developing this type of literacy, much less time and attention is spent on developing a child’s physical literacy, despite the fact that nurturing physical literacy from a young age is essential for a child’s lifelong success.

Physical literacy describes an individual’s ability to understand and execute movement with confidence, apply movement to physical activities, recognize the benefits of movement, be competent in movement on numerous levels, and inherently enjoy moving and being physically active. Kids with higher physical literacy are more likely to commit to a lifestyle of physical activity and reap its many benefits, including improved school performance, health, social skills, self-esteem and overall well being.

Unfortunately, as more children, adolescents and adults opt for screen time rather than physical activities, and as physical education classes are engineered out of the school day, the physical literacy of children and adults in the United States is at an all-time low. And just like kids who don’t learn basic reading skills at a young age will struggle with reading, kids who don’t learn basic physical movements at a young age will struggle with physical activity and sports.

Dr. Avery Faigenbaum, author of ACE’s Youth Fitness Manual , believes that lack of fundamental movement skills, such as running, jumping and catching, in the first five years of life leads to decreased motor skills and coordination in elementary school, which in turn leads to decreased movement confidence in tweens. I ncreased sedentary behaviors in tweens and teens then leads to increased disease risk factors in teens and young adults, which leads to increased adverse health outcomes in adulthood.

What can be done to reverse this trend? Here are five tips to help you improve your child’s (and, in many cases, your own ) physical literacy:

1. Start nurturing motor- skill development from infancy.

In the first five years of life, the typical child will have at least 11 well- child visits. At every visit, the pediatrician will assess development, including gross and fine motor skills. Take advantage of this opportunity to see how your child’s skills are developing and how you can help to facilitate continued improvement. Here are some typical motor- skill development milestones (as advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics here) and how you can help your child enhance these skills:

  • At two months, your infant should lift his or her head and chest when in a face-down position. Starting at one month of age, provide your infant with a total of one hour of “tummy time” each day in short spurts lasting several minutes.
  • At four months, your infant should roll over from back to front, support him- or herself on elbows and wrists (when in face-down position), and begin to grasp objects. Invest in a play mat to encourage your infant to move around and interact with the environment.
  • At six months, your child should roll over back to front, sit without support and begin to “rake” small objects with four fingers. Provide your infant with at least 60 minutes  of active play time each day.
  • At nine months, your infant should roll to both sides, sit well without support, crawl and transfer objects from hand to hand. Entice your infant to practice rolling and crawling skills by spreading a variety of interesting items across a safe play area.
  • At one year, your child should stand, begin to walk independently and pick up small objects. Take your child for short walks and encourage his or her emerging motor independence.
  • At 15 months, your child should walk backward, run and scribble. Encourage your child to show off and practice all of his or her newfound skills (with close supervision to ensure safety).
  • At 18 months, your toddler should sit, stand, walk independently, walk up steps (while holding your hand), begin to run, and grasp and manipulate small objects. Create a safe environment for your child to run and play.
  • At two years, your toddler should jump, ride on a toy without pedals, and build a tower with three blocks. Create opportunities for your child to practice these motor skills for a total of one hour each day.
  • At three years, your child should pedal a tricycle, climb on and off furniture, copy a circle, and draw a person with a head and one other body part. Invest in a tricycle and help your child  gain competency in riding it. Also consider tumbling and other activities that promote the development of your child’s basic activity skills.
  • At four years, your preschooler should be developing coordinated motor skills such as running and kicking, throwing and swimming. Make teaching your child to swim a priority. Also, introduce ball sports and other activities that encourage increasing competency in the basic motor skills like running, balance, jumping and cycling.
  • At five years, your child is ready to play basic sports, ride a bicycle with training wheels and skip. Provide your child with at least one hour of physical activity per day to practice these skills in a fun and supportive environment.

2. Advocate for physical education in your schools.

While parents are largely responsible for a child’s physical literacy in the early years, physical education programs and participation in sports help older children continue to develop and enhance their physical literacy skills. In many states, local physical education and recreation programs are being cut back due to budget concerns. Start letter- writing campaigns and phone calls to your local government asking them to implement more P.E. and recreation programs.

3. Start slow.

When a child learns to read, they don’t start with a novel. Physical activity is no different.  Start slow and w ork at your child’s speed, not yours! Success leads to a positive attitude and improved self-esteem, while failure leads to negative attitudes. Compliment and pat your child on the back, reinforce positive physical behaviors, and build his or her ego. Physical activity can build confidence and spark more interest in future physical activity.

4. Emphasize fun.

It’s  not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun and enjoying being active. Kids who have fun participating in activities will participate more, be confident and have more success. They will also be more likely to develop a high level of physical literacy.

5. Model physical literacy.

Remember, physical literacy continues to develop and improve over a lifetime. You hear this time and again: your kids are watching you and will model after you. Let them see you increase your physical literacy as you practice your walking, running, balancing, jumping, swimming, cycling, throwing and kicking skills. Kids who grow up with active parents are more likely to be active themselves. Create a family activity plan in which you go for walks, bike rides or hiking on a regular basis. Many children enjoy family time, so why not make family time active time?

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