Do you know the ABCs of physical literacy?

Sport for Life storyteller Will Johnson’s son Kristopher has been mastering climbing down the stairs.

By Will Johnson

My son Kristopher was pointing his toe like a ballerina. 

Down on all fours at the top lip of our house’s central staircase, my one-year-old had side-crawled himself into position before sending out an exploratory foot to find the step below. Watching with arms outstretched, I chanted fatherly encouragement as he tentatively found purchase, allowing him to pivot his tiny body into position and slide backwards towards me. I’d seen him make his way down the stairs this way before, but never with this much style. He dropped to the step with a slack fluidity, and then the one after that, regularly shoulder-checking like he was backing up a garbage truck. As I marveled at his newfound grace and speed, I wondered if maybe he would have a future as a dancer, or maybe a gymnast. And it occurred to me that if he was beginning to acquire an alphabet’s worth of physical literacy letters, then I was witnessing his ABCs.

The term physical literacy is foundational to all the work we do at Sport for Life, with multi-million dollar projects such as the nationwide Physical Literacy for Communities (PL4C) initiative based around the goal of promoting it throughout Canada and beyond. The exact definition is sometimes controversial, and arguably up for interpretation, but I’ve always appreciated how the central metaphor connects acquiring fundamental movement skills with learning how to read — you start with letters, make your way up to sentences and paragraphs, until ultimately you’re greedily consuming Shakespeare plays and political manifestos. In the same way, Kris can move from learning how to point his leg to using it to climb down the stairs, then maybe onwards to something like synchronized swimming or diving as he works his way through our Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity framework. According to its progression, the ABCs are Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed. This is followed by the FUNdamentals stage, which emphasizes the importance of having fun while you move. As the storyteller and pseudo-evangelist of the organization, I understood all of this in theory. But now I was watching it play out in real life. 

When Sport for Life goes into communities as part of the PL4C project, the very first step is putting together a partner table of local stakeholders. They collaborate across sectors to throw campaigns, introduce new programming, and embark on projects like building walking paths and playgrounds. To continue with the metaphor, it’s essentially like distributing free books throughout the community without needing them returned. The books they create you may have already read, like Walking Through the Park, but there’s a reason that one’s so dog-eared and well-loved — because it’s worth reading over and over again, maybe even highlighting passages to share with your friends and stopping to marvel at the beauty of the prose. Some of the books will be like instruction manuals, while others are like novels or books of poems. One community introduced a volunteer program at a hospital that saw patients walking accompanied around the corridors multiple times a day, while another constructed a daycare with physical activity and exploration in mind. Like literature, the topics physical literacy touches are endless, and you need to choose which books you want to pull off the shelf.

Which brings me back to parenthood. Ever since I first became a Dad in 2020 and 2021, it’s been a major priority for me that I micro-manage our children’s library and share with them the literary favourites of my youth: Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, The Hardy Boys. They’re both under two years old, but I’ve got their reading future mapped out for years. So it occurred to me: how could I do the same thing for them, but with a focus on their physical literacy stories as well? I thought of all the activities I hoped to get my kids into one day, including swimming, rock climbing, whitewater rafting. I want them to have each of those titles on their physical literacy shelf, all the way from Scooting Down the Stairs Backwards to How to be a Trapeze Artist and Climbing Mount Everest for Dummies. This is exactly the feeling of our PL4C champions on the ground when it comes to mobilizing their physical literacy knowledge, except they’re dealing with countless strangers instead of their own offspring.

The interesting thing about this work is that it can evolve in a myriad of ways, depending on the priorities of the community and the makeup of the population. Sport for Life provides a pile of letters, and then each partner table needs to write its own sentences and paragraphs. When everybody comes together to create something special, that’s like a novel with plentiful twists and turns. Like The Da Vinci Code. And because the overall goal is culture change, it also depends on the social makeup of that place. One working table might prioritize healthy eating, while another makes quality sport the foundation of their work, or injury prevention. Each book needs to be appropriate for its audience, which is why you wouldn’t read 50 Shades of Grey to a child the same way you wouldn’t expect them to compete in CrossFit. And you wouldn’t introduce a city-sized recreation program to a community that can’t sustain it.

However things play out, it’s always interesting to see how things organically evolve.

A few days after that initial moment on the stairs, I took Kris swimming with his sister at the local pool — a treat since the pandemic restrictions began to loosen. For the most part he’s been lounging lackadaisical in his floatie while his older sister splashes around, but I make sure that he spends some time free exploring in the water. Sometimes that means he dunks accidentally, but I’m always there to hoist him up by the armpit. As I gathered the two of them up in my arms to float down the lazy river feature, I noticed that he was beginning to instinctively pump his little legs to stay afloat. Raw human instinct was kicking in, pun intended. And sure enough, as I watched, he straightened out his leg in precisely the same way he did on the stairs and began kicking  enthusiastically with a perfectly pointed toe. He’d learned the letter on the stairs, now he was already using it in a sentence. 

I can’t remember ever feeling more proud. 

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