Developing Healthy, Active, Physically Literate Preschoolers

By Rhonda Clements, EdD and Sharon Schneider, MS 1

Until recently, early childhood specialists typically ignored the need for formal instruction focused on young children’s physical development. There was a general belief that the physical needs of children ages three and four could be satisfied in the home setting, or later when the child entered elementary school. We now know that preschool children are at a critical stage of language and brain development, as well as physical development, and can greatly benefit from planned instruction aimed at achieving physical literacy.

Most people are familiar with the term “literacy” as it relates to a child’s reading or writing skills.  The term has also been used in conjunction with a child’s math, science, and computer skills. However, fewer adults are able to define the term “physical literacy,” which describes the proficiency in a wide variety of fundamental movement skills and concepts. In young children, activities that are aimed at increasing awareness of their bodies’ capabilities, while encouraging them to safely interact with others can build physical literacy. Physical literacy also includes children’s ability to perform the key elements of a basic movement skill during a group activity or a game with limited rules.  The term can also be applied to older elementary children when they demonstrate the ability to perform a variety of advanced sport skills during their adolescent years and into adulthood.

Parents, daycare workers, teachers and school administrators can acquire a greater understanding of the term physical literacy in order to ensure that young children reach their full physical potential. Failure to make adequate provisions for young children’s natural urge to move can result in them becoming sedentary as they grow older.

Getting Started

One way to begin the process of building physical literacy is to help all parents recognize that physical activity is at the very heart of childhood. Oftentimes, when a young child is wiggling and squirming and becomes too restless to remain still, the child is reacting to a natural physiological desire to move.  Among other skills, planned physical literacy activities offer children opportunities to practice a variety of vigorous movement locomotor skills.  And while we would not enroll a preschool child in an adult aerobics class, locomotor skills such as running, galloping, jumping and hopping do challenge the child to use their large muscles freely.  During vigorous chase and flee games, the young child’s breathing and heart rate are also elevated for increased fitness.

It is also critical to remember that preschool children naturally seek greater mental and physical challenges as they become more skillful.  Parents should not be surprised that after obtaining a level of success, the child instinctively seeks the next level of difficulty for a new and greater physical challenge. Lessons created by trained teachers and daycare workers include a progression of physical challenges without adding safety risks.

Most early childhood theorists agree that by age four, children appreciate interacting with playmates in responsible ways. Playing with a group of friends on a playground satisfies this desire, whereas an overuse of electronic devices can cause young children to lose interest in being physically active — despite some parents’ belief that technology toys can increase their child’s small muscle dexterity. Most importantly, being active with classmates awakens a child’s understanding of how to interact within a group in order to accomplish physical tasks.

Finally, well developed physical literacy lessons include opportunities to learn numerous basic movement skills and movement patterns that serve as building blocks for more advanced movements.  These skills empower young children and increase their confidence and initiative to attempt new physical challenges, such as learning how to manipulate objects – rolling, fielding, bouncing, catching, tossing, throwing, and kicking a slightly deflated ball. All in all, the process of achieving physical literacy in preschool allows the young child to experience a whole new world of physical skills, wonders and challenges.

To incorporate physical literacy into your practice, take advantage of the free lesson plans from SHAPE America’s Download Library.

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1Author affiliations: Clements and Schneider are co-authors of SHAPE America’s new book Moving with Words & Actions: Physical Literacy for Preschool and Primary Children. Clements is the Director of the MAT in Physical Education and Sport Program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York and Schneider is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University where she teaches Early Childhood and Elementary Education Majors courses in Movement and Child’s Rhythm.