Key Elements of Physical Literacy: A Sense of Direction and a Vision of Possibilities

In this blog I shall expand on the three core features of Physical Literacy by proposing a number of additions. I shall also elaborate on the need to carefully consider the role of ‘understanding’ and the relevance of the Capability Approach to Physical Literacy.  At this stage, I am merely identifying a conceptual framework as the basis for informing a practice framework which can guide the pedagogical decisions of practitioners and identify what focus is appropriate.

We have to construct conceptual frameworks that guide practice whilst working within the realities of practice. We have to create a much more practical perspective. But first, we need to articulate more precisely what our vision can be, what possibilities it can generate, and create a shared understanding.

A Starting Point

Early childhood should be our starting point for the emergence and development of a coherent and progressive ‘set of educational possibilities’ that enable people to lead full and valuable lives: lives that they can construct for themselves based upon what they identify they would like their lives to be like. What these ‘sets of possibilities’ consist of and how they are made available, requires careful deliberation and a shared understanding of their relevance. This is an important and urgent task: a task that has been neglected. A consideration of the relevance of Physical Literacy provides the means for a coherent education of young people and adults.

We need to remember that it is only when we interact within the cultural contexts of purposeful pursuits that we are doing something meaningful. Yet the main problem is that the physical education profession has failed to recognise the relevance of meaning-making and how it emerges. The primary focus on motor skills/competences effectively obscures the development of a coherent focus within the teaching of physical education.  It is important for Physical Literacy advocates to articulate this relevance and make it accessible through appropriate guidance and practices.

We also need to recognise that the development of agency and self-regulation is rooted in early childhood. It therefore needs to be a continuous focus throughout schooling and into adulthood.

1. Primacy of Movement [1]

Building on the notion that we are ‘self-schooled in movement possibilities’, we need to ensure that this concept is implicit in how we help individuals across the life-span to generate a movement capability[2] that energises and enriches their lives. In order to do this, practitioners need to be aware of how they can create enabling environments that generate affordances. This can be supported by an enabling attitude of the practitioners and guided by a clear sense of direction given by a Physical Literacy focus. For example, practitioners could:

  • Recognise the relevance of a movement capability in making sense of the world and its central role is perception and cognition. Self-movement and self-regulation is fundamental to life and its meaning.
  • Recognise the relevance of ‘sensory-kinetic-kinaesthetic experiences’ to a person’s development.
  • Create a repertoire of ‘I Cans’ and ‘synergies of meaningful movement’
  • Promote the acquiring a movement capability to expand human capacities

We need to recognise the relevance of the primacy of movement in the early years and its development through different phases of the life span, from early childhood through school and into adulthood.

2. The Development of the Person, Personhood and Flourishing

Meakin (1990) and McNamee (1992) clearly located the development of personhood as a principal strand for the aspirations of physical education. After careful reading of the literature on personhood to support their perspective, I felt that Rorty’s (1988) conception of personhood had particular relevance for Physical Literacy. For Rorty (1988, 43) his definition focuses on:

“A person is . . . (a) capable of being directed by its conception of its own identity and what is important to that identity, and (b) capable of interacting with others, in a common world. A person is that interactive member of a community, reflexively sensitive to the contexts of her activity, a critically reflective inventor of the story of their life.”

Constituents of Personhood

It is important for young people and adults that they can construct ideas for themselves about what they would like their lives to be, what they can aspire to be and what they would like to achieve (there are matters of significance for them). What does this involve?

  • The relevance of our movement capability in making sense of the world
  • Learning to give shape and purpose to one’s life (using the Capability Approach)
  • Exploration of valuable ‘beings and doing’ and learn to understand what they can aspire to be and do
  • Acquire the freedoms to make informed choices that that they have thought about and enable them to pursue and realise achievements that they value
  • Make life plans: construct for themselves what they would like their lives to be like and recognise their significance. The challenge of searching and finding purposes (that one can commit to) needs to be recognised as an important process in young people’s lives as well as adults.
  • Personal Capital (agency, independence and responsibility) and personal resource (vitality and dynamism, confidence and enthusiasm)
  • A Sense of Coherence: Ability to manage successfully the challenges that a person can encounter (behavioural flexibility). Generate a personal resource to enable persons to live flourishing and thriving lives.
  • Understanding and imagination (to see possibilities)
  • Energising life and enabling people to flourish through purposeful physical pursuits
  • Engage in culturally valued pursuits from which persons can develop meaning
  • Extending human boundaries and capacities (their capacity to construct movement patterns of extra-ordinary complexity and beauty)

When we examine personhood and explore what it could involve, it is very obvious that we are identifying components of culture rather than possession of different kinds of features of our mind: Peter Carruthers (Continuity in Mind The Philosophers Magazine 76, (1) 2017 page 83) explains this very clearly. It is this cultural perspective and the notion of culturally valued pursuits that is important for Physical Literacy and something that we have to address.

In order to achieve this, a sense of agency and empowerment are important also so that people (as ‘persons’) can be the authors of their own life plans[3].In addition to learning to give shape and purpose to a person’s life, learning how to construct for themselves what they would like their lives to be like and to recognise their significance, it is important to add the following core attributes.

In becoming a person, one acquires rights and responsibilities (to oneself and others), which need to be respected and protected. In the same way, the developing attributes of a person need to be nurtured and cultivated (especially by teachers, practitioners and coaches).

Core Attributes for Physical Literacy

The following attributes represent a starting point for the challenge that has to be addressed:

Personal Capital

  • Agency and empowerment
  • Independence
  • Responsibility
  • Imagination
  • Behavioural flexibility

Inner Resource

  • Enthusiasm
  • Confidence
  • Patience
  • Determination/perseverance
  • Resist distractions
  • Wanting to practice/rehearse

As we operate within a context of social inter-relations and need for co-operation as we learn from each other. Social attributes are:

  • Communication
  • Co-operation
  • Working productively with others
  • Relationships
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Giving young people and adults ‘a voice’

This wide range of important attributes need integrating together so that they are ‘operating in concert’ and synchronised in a holistic sense. They need to be embodied, embedded and integrated within the learning and experience of engagement in culturally valued pursuits. There needs to be understanding in both the way in which they are fundamental to the development of a person and how our pedagogical practices can contribute to the all round development of our movement capability. This is vital for Physical Literacy.

In addition, we need to think also of how we enable persons to flourish. Health and its relationship with physical activity tends to be associated with preventing the risk of non-communicable diseases usually associated with lifestyle factors and addressing the problems of obesity. This is a very narrow and instrumental way of viewing our health.

Antonovsky (1993) speaks of a ‘Sense of Coherence’ – a kind of personal resource – that he sees as a positive way of looking at life together with an ability to manage successfully the many challenges that a person can encounter.  This capacity is a combination of person’s ability to:

  • Assess and understand the situation they are in
  • Find meaning to move in a health-promoting direction
  • Have the capacity to do so.

Based on this kind of thinking, Physical Literacy can open up a new and more positive way of thinking about this relationship – creating the idea of building a personal resource for living well.

3. Engagement in Culturally Valued Pursuits

The central features of culturally valued pursuits are first of all, learning to love being active and secondly learning to value engagement in purposeful physical pursuits because you have developed an emotional attachment to engaging in something of your own choice that you value. As a result, continued engagement in them enriches your life and they become meaningful to you.  They are things that matter to you because they are seen as significant, intentional and purposeful.

There is a wealth of opportunities available to us that can open up so many possibilities that can provide very different meaningful experiences, challenges and satisfactions. However, meaning-making is not a central focus in physical education and I would suggest that it is a missing ingredient that reduces physical education to an emphasis on specific motor skills and that is often decontextualized.

Additional input that needs to be addressed

An understanding of the Primacy of Movement and its links to personhood and culturally pursuits are the foundations of Physical Literacy (supported by philosophical and conceptual arguments) and are central to this argument.

What does “understanding entail”?[4]

  1. Grasping the structure and the inter-connections of Physical Literacy
  2. See possibilities: We need to build a language of possibility so that young people can learn to explore wider horizons (‘horizons of significance’ – Charles Taylor): imagination enlarges our understanding of
 the possibilities that are open to us and of the limits within which we could pursue them.
  3. Make sense of the need to explore participation in a wide range of culturally valued physical pursuits and thus widen life choices in order to learn to make sense of them and their value.

Finally, there is an urgent need for Practice Reviews to explain how these ideas can underpin practice and pedagogy.


[1] An outline of The Primacy of Movement and its relevance to Early Childhood can be viewed on the IPLA website.

[2] An outline of a Movement Capability will be available on the IPLA website.

[3] According to Charles Taylor (1985), what is crucial about agents (persons) is that things matter to them. We cannot simply identify agents by a performance criterion, nor assimilate animals or machines; there are matters of significance for human beings that are peculiarly human. His account is distinctly phenomenological (Taylor, 1989, p. 32). In Taylor’s conception of ‘embodied agency’, he sees it as essential to the human condition (not as a contingent feature): our experience is necessarily that of embodied agents (see Taylor, ‘Transcendental Arguments’, in Taylor, 1995, p. 25).

[4] Grimm, S.R. (2012). The Value of Understanding.” Philosophy Compass 7: 103-117.