Justifying physical activity and physical literacy

Means and Ends in relation to physical activity/physical literacy PA/PL

Reliance on outcomes beyond the physical domain

Over the years both within and beyond education there has been a tendency to sell PA/PL as a means to other ends such as managing competition, developing life skills, promoting communication, using leisure time profitably and fostering creativity. There has been little consistent justification of the intrinsic value of activity, apart from physiological benefits. Little has been written about the value of PA/PL in and of itself.

Perceived benefits of extrinsic ends

In education, claiming to work to a wide range of extrinsic ends is seen to demonstrate how PA/PL can contribute to broader educational goals. As this area of activity has rich potential, it is has seemed appropriate for the profession to claim that it can readily to align with a wide range of educational thinking and priorities.

Some dangers of extrinsic ends

However there are some dangers in pinning the value of PA/PL to ends beyond the core focus of the area. For example:-

  • It is almost impossible to prove that we, specifically, have been instrumental in reaching broader goals such as creativity
  • We are not the only area working towards broader ends and for this reason we could be squeezed out of the curriculum as others can realise the same aspiration. PA/PL could be seen to be addressed in such times as recess.
  • A focus on extrinsic ends can readily detract from the core focus of the subject area, being developing human embodied potential. Lessons could become less active and thus the ‘physical’ experience could be the poorer
  • Where PA/PL is seen as principally facilitating learning in other subjects, this takes away the rich possibilities of enhancing embodied potential. ‘Learning by doing’ is certainly to be recommended but using movement to understand e.g. mathematics does not champion the value of movement in itself.

Significantly there is a lack of identification of what makes PA/PL both unique and essential in schooling and life beyond. (See Whitehead 2013)

Unpacking the intrinsic value of Physical Activity/Physical Literacy

It is important that advocates of PA/PL understand and can present the intrinsic values of this area of human endeavour

  • Human physicality defines human being. Human physicality is one of the many and varied potentials that can contribute to a full and rewarding life. Also included here would be participation in different forms of art including drama and music. To foster a wide range of human capabilities enriches life, issuing in fulfilment and fostering self-identity
  • Developing a commitment to engaging human physical potential can also contribute to holistic health and well-being, not least in the balance that it can bring to the life we lead.
  • In the philosophical context where scholars champion monism – being the total interdependence of mind and body – it is argued that developing embodied abilities is essential in realising full human potential
  • Again in the philosophical context many scholars argue that we create ourselves in interaction with the world around us – animate and inanimate. Human embodiment is a key aspect of human nature that facilitates this interaction.
  • As set out by Nussbaum (2011) every individual has the right to be supported in developing all human capabilities. Whitehead (2019) makes a clear case for human embodied potential to be recognised as a human capability in its own right, making it an essential element of education and life-long participation.

Monism and the permeation of intrinsic value

As indicated above developing embodied human potential can be very significant to human life as we know it. However on account of our holistic nature many of the benefits of these experiences can and will permeate the whole person.

For example should participants develop their self-awareness and self -confidence in participation in physical activity, should they develop their creative faculties in dance or should they learn to work in teams to effect mastery in a game situation, it is highly likely that development of these human potentials will permeate life as a whole. Physical activity is not designed per se to promote self-confidence, creativity or social skills. However as the subject area in and of itself incorporates these aspects of human nature, meaningful experiences in the physical domain can impact on life as a whole.

There is a sense that, if practitioners are effective in fostering progress across a range of physical activities they will, at the same time, be contributing to holistic human development and enhancing the richness of life.

Take home message ‘We must sell our work as of value in itself – to ensure we hold our place in society and education’

We need to be ready to articulate, with confidence, the intrinsic value of physical activity/physical literacy.



Nussbaum, M. C. (2011) Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. London: Belnap Press

Whitehead, M.E.  in Capel, S. and Whitehead M.E. (eds) (2013) Debates in Physical Education. (Chapter 2)  London: Routledge

Whitehead, M.E (ed) (2019) Physical Literacy across the World. Chapter 4. London Routledge