Physical Literacy and Understanding

In one of Margaret’s Whitehead’s key papers “The importance and value of physical literacy throughout the life-course, based on existential and phenomenological schools of thought” at the AIESEP Congress, 2010, she explained what is meant by literacy.

“Physical literacy and indeed literacy in any field is not for me a personal skill but a disposition to use experience, understanding and abilities to interact effectively with the world” (available on the IPLA website).

This is a very important statement but is simply overlooked and as a result a misunderstanding of physical literacy has emerged. Instead of explaining this misunderstanding I would like to focus on what is meant by understanding. I shall draw on two papers in Physical Education Matters (see References) that provide a much more detailed explanation of understanding in Physical Education.

Physical literacy and understanding

There are two dimensions to understanding:

  • One relates to what we would hope learners understand as they make progress on their physical literacy journey;
  • The other is ‘the understanding’ that a teacher needs in order to foster this capacity in learners.

I shall focus on the first dimension but in this process the challenges for the teacher will be highlighted.

It is not expected that learners need to understand the concept of physical literacy, its philosophical underpinning, its justification, its elements and attributes. The main focus should be that learners will acquire the ‘understanding’ that is associated with learning to value and take responsibility
for maintaining their interest in purposeful physical pursuits and gaining satisfaction in the engagement. This focus represents the significance of physical literacy for physical education that underpins the educational validity of the subject. The focus of (1) understanding, (2) learning to value and (3) take responsibility are crucial features of the educational role of teachers and represent crucial aspects of what we should be aspiring to achieve in physical education.

However, can we claim that we make conscious and deliberate efforts to achieve this focus? Purposeful physical pursuits are the core of physical education and we need to facilitate an understanding of them but at the same time we should be striving 
to ensure that young people acquire an understanding of what it means to value these activities and help young people to recognise their significance in enriching their lives.

If we use the key characteristics of ‘understanding’ that were outlined in an article in Physical Education Matters (Almond and Ayers, 2013) inspired by the work of Stephen Grimm at Fordham University who is Project Director of the Varieties of Understanding Project (see Note 2). Using Grimm’s (2012) work, we can begin to construct a framework to guide practice. Grimm’s three key characteristics were (1) grasping connections, (2) seeing possibilities and (3) making sense of something.

In the context of physical literacy, that informs and underpins a new perspective on physical education, we can explore the following characteristics of this process.

It is hoped that learners will grasp connections that will illuminate why:

  • They need to develop their movement capability and to experience the satisfaction of progress and success in purposeful physical pursuits of their choice.
  • They need to exercise their ability:
  • to make choices of a certain kind and to control the procedures needed to achieve goals that they value
  • to take responsibility for their own wellbeing.

They will see possibilities such as:

  • Participation in physical pursuits can enhance a sense of vitality, dynamism, energy and wellbeing being active can be rewarding and pleasurable and enable them to develop a commitment to an active lifestyle.
  • Being active can be rewarding and pleasurable and enables them to develop a commitment to an active lifestyle.

They will make sense of:

  • The need to explore participation in a wide range of purposeful physical pursuits and thus widen their life choices
  • The notion that regular participation in purposeful physical pursuits develops a resource that enhances all round health and wellbeing and that this will be of benefit to them throughout the life-course and into old age.

These are ambitious goals for the learner to achieve within physical education because they demand independent thinking and commitment, strength of character and vision. We need to build also a language of possibility so that young people can learn to explore wider horizons. This is where the teacher’s role is crucial, but we need to add another dimension – the role of imagination.

If we discover that we find something intrinsically worth doing for its own sake, such as dance, adventurous activities in open countryside or playing a game or any other form of purposeful physical pursuit, then this could become a source for what Warnock (1994: 177) calls ‘sought for imaginative joy’. We are beginning to locate a value in what we do, to recognise it as being important to ourselves as well as others; it occupies our thoughts and we seek out more opportunities to engage in it.

There are many aspects of life (ones that can enrich life such as purposeful physical pursuits) that can be explored by the imagination and which can give meaning to life. If imagination is not engaged how can young people learn to give their life shape? Raising questions about their freedom to make decisions, and the consequences these decisions may have, enables them to learn the lesson of responsibility.

Instead of seeing young people as being passengers in life or passive in their choice of leisure opportunities, let us help them to become active members with a sense of direction. It is only because they possess imagination that they can set goals for themselves about how they would like their lives to be and what they would like to achieve. This ability, to think beyond the present and consider what we could do in the future, enables the idea of meaningful, significance or value to take shape.

To construct something that is meaningful can only come from within ourselves; it is not something that is given to us. Our imagination and positive experiences in purposeful physical pursuits enable us to construct something meaningful and valuable, something that can enrich our lives and it needs to be a central part of education guided by physical literacy.

When we say that someone has an aspiration, we mean that they adopt an ideal, (something they value) that may be beyond their current powers but which could become a goal that gives them a purpose. But to identify such an aspiration is a function of their imagination, their capacity to imagine something they see as central to making their life worthwhile. If their imagination is not engaged, they will never learn to give their life shape and fulfill their aspirations.

This point is highlighted in a book The Enlargement of Life: moral imagination at work (Kekes, 2006). Kekes provides a thought-provoking examination of the importance of imagination. He proposes that people aim at a future condition that they suppose would be an improvement over the present – to make
 a better life possible. Some succeed better than others in this endeavor because they
are able to form a realistic view of their limits and possibilities. Our imagination enables us to engage in this process. Thus, for Kekes, imagination enlarges our understanding of
 the possibilities that are open to us and of the limits within which we could pursue them.
It enables us to work towards the aim of achieving our ideal of a good life.

Physical education needs to take imagination seriously, to recognise it as central to learning to value something and getting on the inside of a purposeful physical pursuit so learners can recognise its potential for themselves and the opportunity it opens up for living a meaningful life.

This is just a starting point. Like my reference to the misunderstanding of literacy, there is a need to develop a more coherent and informed perspective on Physical Literacy and avoid the misunderstandings that abound within its use.

What do we understand by these key terms (to name just a few) in Physical literacy?

  • The conceptual basis for understanding Physical Literacy
  • The Developing Person and its relevance to Physical literacy
  • The idea of Capabilities
  • Sensory-kinetic-kinesthetic experiences
  • Synergies of meaningful movement
  • Perception-action possibilities
  • Meaning and meaningful opportunities
  • Educational validity
  • Cultural richness of purposeful physical pursuits
  • Intentionality
  • Agency
  • Empowerment
  • Independence
  • Learning to value and take responsibility
  • Counter acting the Dualism in Physical Education

These key terms represent a good starting point because unless we understand them and what they entail we shall be unable to develop informed guidance for practitioners.

In my next blog I intend to move on from conceptual issues and address how we can work with practitioners to develop an informed perspective on Physical Literacy that will actually guide practice.


  1. My thanks to the editor of the AfPE journal, Physical Education Matters, for permission for reproducing part of the article “An exploration of the meaning of understanding in physical education: taking the first steps”. Physical Education Matters 8 (3) p 26-31.
  2. Stephen Grimm at the Varieties of Understanding Project: see


Almond, L. and Ayres, M. (2013). An exploration of the meaning of understanding in physical education: taking the first steps. Physical Education Matters 8 (3) p 26-31.

Ayres, M. and Almond, L. (2014) Understanding in the Teaching of Games and its significance for Physical Education. Physical Education Matters 9 (1) p 15-17.

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

Kekes, J, (2006). The Enlargement of Life: moral imagination at work. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Warnock, M. (1994). Imagination and Time. London: Blackwell Publishers.