How to Help Kids Develop Physical Literacy

If you take a look at Instagram early years ideas on any given day, you’ll notice heaps of ideas for fine motor skills, but not much about gross motor skills and physical literacy. Here’s the thing though, gross motor skills and physical activities are just as important, but perhaps not so easy to share on social media! Further down this post, you’ll find a conversation with guest blogger, Keiran Deck from Secret Ninja school about how we can start to make our children more physically active.

Before we begin though, what on earth is physical literacy?

‘Physical literacy involves holistic lifelong learning through movement and physical activity. It delivers physical, psychological, social and cognitive health and wellbeing benefits.’ Sports Aus

This includes fundamental movement skills such as:

  • walking
  • running
  • jumping
  • throwing
  • catching

From there, children go on to develop the confidence to participate in more organised sports and activities.

Children learn through movement.

Not only does physical exercise help children to grow in confidence and stay healthy, but it also helps them to learn more effectively. 

This is why young children need to spend the majority of their day playing and exploring. 

How developing physical literacy helped our eldest son:

I first met Keiran when we lived in Australia. His taekwondo club was holding a open day and my son was obsessed with ninjas at the time! This was the first time that he had ever shown an interest in a sports club and as the gym was local, we signed him up. Keiran really knows how to make exercise enjoyable and fun for all children, no matter their ability. He now runs Secret Ninja school which you can learn more about here.

My eldest when from shy, introvert who wasn’t a huge fan of physical exercise to a more confident child. Pictured below is my eldest aged 7 at his first ever taekwondo grading. By the time we moved to Vienna 3 years later, he had just achieved his green belt.:

physical literacy helped my son grow in confidence


A conversation on children’s physical literacy that doesn’t just point the finger at screen-time, a guest post by Keiran Deck from Secret Ninja School

Most programs run in schools and sporting clubs have a positive impact on children’s growth. “There are very few things that we do with kids that actually makes them go backwards,” Dr Dean Dudley, a lead researcher into Physical Literacy, said. So when it comes down to deciding how best to support our students, the question is really ‘how much’ of an impact can a particular program have?

Despite the popularity of movement breaks in schools, ubiquitous sports programs, participation in sport continues to decline dramatically in the Western world. In Australia, for example, 77% of 5-14yo kids don’t get enough organised exercise every day* and with it the health and wellbeing benefits of living an active life.

What’s going on and how do we turn this statistic around? The answer, at least part of it, lies in children having the competence and confidence to be active. In other words, their Physical Literacy.

How can we help children find the confidence and competence to want to move their bodies regularly?

Movement programs have traditionally focused on basic physical skill progression, often referred to as ‘Fundamental Movement Skills’. But as educators, we know that learning new skills is not enough to motivate students to want to move regularly.

You can teach a child how to kick a ball, but if you don’t show them why it’s fun to kick a ball (for example, playing with friends) then they’re not going to want to kick a ball in their own time.

We know intuitively that a great movement program leaves the kids wanting more. We also know intuitively that if they’re left wanting more, we have delivered a program that also addresses their social, psychological and cognitive development. I’ll give you an example which will probably bring up one of your own.

When I teach taekwondo to young children, it’s as critical for them to feel like an important member of the class as it is for them to feel like their physical skills are progressing. Say, for example, we’re practicing a new skill and frustration starts to mount in some students who can’t seem to do it as well as others. I will usually encourage them to try once or twice more before ending the activity.

Before we move on we’ll acknowledge as a group that skills take time and effort to develop before moving onto a game that helps the class feel connected to each other. Rather than placing the group’s sense of self worth on whether they are good at a specific skill at a specific point in time, we make sure other elements of their development are being attended to as well.

physical literacy secret ninja school video

In this example, not only are we encouraging physical development, but we’re also creating a culture that gives the students space and time to develop those skills (psychological) and feel connected to the group to want to return for more next week (social).

Dr Dudley and his team, commissioned by Sport Australia, have quantified this intuitive knowledge in the Australian Physical Literacy Framework.

You can think of the Framework like the periodic table. Elements of development are placed into categories – Physical, Psychological, Cognitive and Social – and space is left for more elements to be added as they come to light.

Most importantly, this Framework gives educators the tools to measure the impact of their program.

It’s an exciting progression in the literature that begins to address the needs of modern children (I didn’t mention screens, you just thought it). It shifts the focus onto to prolonged participation in sport for the good of community and individual health, and away from the ‘success or bust’ subtext of children’s sporting pathways.

The Framework is slowly making its way across the country, into schools and sporting programs. Its impact won’t be measurable for many years but I’m optimistic about it.

In cases where the impact of this Framework has been measured, researchers have seen more than .5 of a standard deviation in the classroom’s behaviour.

“[.5 of a standard deviation is] a threshold where you could walk into a school or a coaching class and you could say, there’s something different about this class. They’ve received something that other people haven’t,” Dr Dudley says in this lecture.

How can you measure whether your program is having this sort of impact? One of the simplest – and most critical – tests is whether your students are using the skills learnt in your program in their own time.

Here’s what the Physical Literacy Framework looks like in a nutshell:


sports framework

*Exercise and Sports Science Australia

Sian Thomas
an image of This Playful Home founder, Sian Thomas. The photo includes a photo of her daughter when she was around 18 months old

I’m Siân (rhymes with yarn), a play advocate, proud parent to three, and former teacher. My mission is to infuse more joy and less overwhelm into the lives of parents. Discover play-based activities with me that not only make learning FUN but also forge deep connections with your young learners, creating memories to cherish forever.