Approaches to physical education, and the development of increased opportunities for movement competence and skill development have changed dramatically over recent years. Traditionally, movement and sport were the two key focus areas for physical education and extra-curricular programs, but there is now increased emphasis placed on the holistic development of the individual. This holistic focus goes beyond skill and the development of sports understanding to a more all-encompassing concept known as physical literacy.

What is physical literacy?
Dame Margaret Whitehead, an academic practitioner from the University of Liverpool, first described the concept of ‘physical literacy’ as a disposition and capability that an individual acquires. Whitehead (2016) defines physical literacy as, “The motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to maintain physical activity throughout the life course.” Whitehead intentionally defined the concept in a broad manner so as to allow individuals to understand that it focuses on the whole person, and that each individual is capable of attaining a degree of physical literacy. Competence and mastery still hold a place of importance, but they are no more important than the development of self-efficacy, self-confidence and self-esteem.

The term ‘physical literacy’ was found to be most appropriate in describing the concept for physical development and maintenance throughout life. The term ‘physical’ obviously refers to movement, but it was the use of the term ‘literacy’ that created debate and discussion. Some of the reasons that Whitehead (2016) chose literacy over similar terms such as movement, competence, ability, or skill are as follows:

  • The concept aligns with a monist philosophy that focuses on holistic wellness, as opposed to the traditional development of the physical being
  • It’s a commonly used term to describe a human characteristic that is attainable by most people
  • It attempts to move away from a dualistic approach that separates the mind from the body
  • Literacy encompasses doing, interpreting, responding and understanding, this aligns with a monist approach;
  • Literacy has holistic associations that absorb aspects of human cognition and emotion
  • It has a non-exclusive connotation that it is attainable by everyone at their own level

Why Physical Literacy?
The notion of physical literacy as a concept serves a number of purposes in the promotion of physical activity as being essential throughout our life course. It enables us to identify the intrinsic value of physical activity; provide a clear goal to focus on throughout all forms of physical activity; reinforce the importance that physical activity holds in the school curriculum; justifies the case for providing opportunity for all; and, provides a framework that reinforces lifelong participation in physical activity, and the role that people play within that framework. Furthermore, the notion of literacy is assumed to be attainable by all. In the case of physical literacy it is seen to encompass the various aspects of doing, interpreting, responding and understanding, which falls in line with a holistic, monist approach.


In part two of Understanding Literacy, Josh Symes considers the fundamental and significant aspects of physically literate individuals, and explores physical literacy at Singapore American School. 

Click here to read Understanding Physical Literacy: Part Two.


Whitehead 1, M. (2001). The concept of physical literacy. European Journal of Physical Education6(2), 127-138.

Whitehead, M. (2008). Physical literacy: Philosophical considerations in relation to developing a sense of self, universality and propositional knowledge. Sports Ethics and Philosophy1(3), 281-298.

Whitehead, M. (Ed.). (2010). Physical literacy: Throughout the lifecourse. Routledge.

Whitehead, M. (2016). Physical literacy: Throughout the lifecourse (2nd ed.). Routledge




  • health
  • physical education

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