Originally published: December 2022
Physical literacy vs. physical activity
Physical literacy and physical activity are related but they aren’t the same thing. Physical activity is how you move and the energy you use while moving.
Physical literacy is a person’s motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engaging in physical activity for life.
Having the skills to move is an important part of physical literacy, but it’s more than that! For example, if you have the physical skills, but don’t have confidence or motivation, you may not value physical activity.
Why is literacy activity important?
As teens develop physical literacy, they’re able to move and train their body to gain skills they want—like kicking the ball to a target or landing a cartwheel. These skills build on beginner skills they’ve already mastered.
Exploring and expanding movement skills supports brain development, social skills, and builds self-esteem and confidence.
The development of physical literacy in teens also helps with other valuable life skills like adapting to new situations or bouncing back after disappointment.
Why is physical activity important?
In Canada, the 24-hour movement guidelines recommend that youth get 60 minutes of heart pumping physical activity each day. These guidelines are based on research that outline the amount of physical activity that can improve and protect both a person’s physical and mental health. Teens who develop their physical literacy have the confidence and motivation to try new things, while getting physical activity helps them stay healthy.
How can I help teens develop their physical literacy skills?
Build up the foundation
Just like teens build on the alphabet to learn advanced reading and writing skills, they can deepen their physical literacy to learn more complex movements or more advanced games or sports.
If your teen knows how to:
- run, they can join in games like soccer, tag, or capture the flag during school noon hour.
- throw, they can play a game of sitting volleyball, dodgeball, or frisbee to make friends at a new school or in community.
- swim, they can feel confident to try out kayaking or canoeing with their peers during outdoor education class.
Variety is the key to success
It can be tempting to focus on your teen’s favourite activity, but variety is important. Specializing in one sport or activity too early can limit their potential and affect their long-term development.
If your teen wants to become better in one sport or activity, have them choose another sport or activity in the off season. Taking this approach also helps to prevent injuries, which is important to remain being active throughout their life.
Keep it fun
Dropout rates for sports or activities are highest during the teen years. This is especially true for girls. Teens are more likely to stick with an activity they chose.
Let them decide what activity to try, but help them think through what kinds of activities they enjoy - those are the ones they are most likely to keep doing! Social connections are important for teens so if there are opportunities for your teen to participate in activities with their friends, that’s even better!
Try Different Places and Spaces
Developing physical literacy includes learning how to move in a variety of environments. This can include:
- on the ground: playing games, dancing, wheeling
- in the air: diving, gymnastics, swinging
- on the snow and ice: sledding, skiing, sledge hockey
- in and around water: swimming, kayaking, canoeing
Moving in a variety of spaces and on different surfaces helps teens increase physical literacy, and also helps develop basic life skills. For example, learning how to move on snow and ice is an important skill to learn in Canada, and can help prevent falls and injuries during the winter.
Spending time outdoors, all year-round, is an excellent way for teens to develop physical literacy. Spending time in natural places can also support their mental health and overall well-being. Getting active outdoors with your teen is good for your whole family and can even contribute to better sleep for everyone. A good sleep means more energy to spend being active!
Dressing for the weather is always important to make the experience enjoyable, no matter your age. For tips on dressing for the weather, see MyHealth.Alberta.ca:
For more information on physical activity and physical literacy: