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Physical literacy provides youth with the fundamental movement skills to engage in all types of sport and physical activity. It also helps to build self-image, self-concept and self-efficacy. Giving youth the right skills to enjoy movement for the long-term helps them come back and sustain their motivation to participate in sport and physical activity throughout their life.

The loosening of COVID‑19 pandemic restrictions on sport and physical activity presents a unique opportunity to dramatically change how we engage young people in sport and physical activity. Pre-pandemic sport participation was marred by high dropout rates among girls and young women, youth from low-income households, and teenagers in general.

Recent reports suggest that this dropout problem persists and may be worsened by the pandemic: Canadian Women & Sport’s COVID Alert Report suggests that as many 1 in 4 girls and young women do not plan to return to sport. Meanwhile, MLSE Foundation’s Change the Game Research Report found that a third of girls were less interested in sports in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic.

What can we do to change this trajectory to keep youth engaged long-term? This question requires a multi-part solution. One of those parts is to address long-term engagement by placing greater focus on opportunities that intentionally build physical literacy.

Physical literacy is “the confidence, competence, knowledge and motivation to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activity for life.” Physical literacy doesn’t have the same collective recognition that reading, financial, or digital literacy do. Yet, it deserves its moment in the sun.

Children in gymnasium playingAt MLSE LaunchPad and Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS), physical literacy is an essential component of programming for people of all ages, from as young as age 6 well into adulthood. Recently we talked with MLSE LaunchPad and NBS staff about the importance of physical literacy and why it should be a bigger focus in the way we return to sport. Each contributor brought a unique perspective to the conversation, from research to coaching to movement outside of traditional sport settings. Contributors include:

The summary is adapted from a larger discussion. To find out all that was shared in that discussion, access The Power of Physical Literacy podcast.

It can be hard to translate the textbook definition of physical literacy into a real-world context. What does physical literacy mean from your perspective?

JR: Physical literacy means you have that motivation and that confidence in movement. You want to move and have the physical ability to move.

KO: Physical literacy is the foundation we set for engaging in sport. At MLSE LaunchPad, we build fundamental movement skills (like hopping, skipping, and jumping) through fun, and these become the building blocks of any physical activity you might want to do later in life. 

AP: Physical literacy is about our journey [toward] being physical at many different ages and stages, different kinds of abilities, and that we all have the right to learn through and within movement. It’s the agency that our body has. It’s the way we learn. It’s often the way we communicate.

Why is physical literacy important?

Child in gymnasium jumpingAP: As we’re using fundamental movement skills to scaffold people’s learning, we’re giving them successes along the journey so that there’s that opportunity to feel like you accomplished something, you learned something. And, if you move from accomplishment to accomplishment, you can build that capacity. And I think that connects to people’s self-image, self-concept, self-efficacy, because those little wins along the way are what develop[s] and sustain[s] that motivation. There’s so much that we can offer to young people by giving them that confidence early.

KO: I see that as a coach. We have a lot of youth who are really motivated to build their skills, and we want to help them sustain that motivation. Bringing the fun as they progress keeps them coming back. We want youth to have opportunities to be active outside a set structure.

JR: The importance of physical literacy comes down to engagement in physical activity. Youth [who] engage in sport are more likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to achieve employment. Physical literacy is not just when I’m in basketball, physical literacy is life. Make it fun to find those things like hopscotch, or when you were a kid and didn’t want to step on the cracks when you were walking the sidewalk. That’s an example of ways you can incorporate those basic fundamental movements that really build into larger competencies down [the] line.

How can physical literacy help us understand why youth play as well as why some stop playing?

Children in gymnasium running

AP: Measurement matters. We can make assumptions all the time about why a kid isn’t participating.  And when we dig deeper, when we ask hard questions, when we look for evidence to support what we’re doing, I think we become better providers of this kind of opportunity to be physical, whether it’s physical activity, sports, physical literacy, dance, all of it has to be done with integrity and intention.  And I think physical literacy provides a framework for that.

KO: Even on the coaching side, I want that feedback. If I’m not doing a good job, what am I doing wrong that’s making this kid not come back or making this kid not have this great experience? It definitely holds all of us accountable, and it keeps us going.

JR: I think physical literacy shifts the blame of youth dropout from youth back onto program providers, sport organizations, coaches, everyone involved in the sport or physical activity [environment]. There’s no denying that youth want to be involved in sport, but there’s something about the system that’s not responsive to them. We’re not giving them the right skills to enjoy movement for long term [and] to want to come back.

Discussion wrap-up

You can help youth rebound from the pandemic’s negative effects. Provide youth with evidence-based sport and physical activity opportunities, specifically ones that intentionally support the development of physical literacy. Focus on activities that are fun, spark creativity in movement and are challenging yet accomplishable. Such activities welcome youth back to the playing field and hold promise for keeping them engaged in the long-term.

Interested in learning more about how physical literacy supports ongoing physical activity in youth? MLSE LaunchPad has released the results of its 2-year longitudinal study, The Power of Physical Literacy. The study explores important relationships between physical literacy and physical activity. MLSE LaunchPad also published a paper detailing a successful physical literacy intervention delivered to 6-year-old to 10-year-old youth. To access the report, the paper and the full conversation (podcast), please visit www.mlsefoundation.org/how-we-give/research. 

Creating a healthy sport culture is critical for the prevention of relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). According to research, key prevention factors include education for athletes, coaches, trainers, administrators, parents and all involved in athlete care, and a zero-tolerance policy for toxic training environments or practices such as body shaming, over-exercising, and under-fuelling.

While many of us are familiar with physical literacy (the motivation, confidence, competence, and knowledge to be physically active for life), ethical literacy (the ability to collect and evaluate information, reflect on one’s own moral values and take responsibility for one’s actions) may be a new concept. When physical literacy and ethical literacy are learned at the same time, kids acquire additional life skills such as strengthening their ability to focus attention, remembering instructions or rules, or seeing things from a different perspective.

Traditional games, which incorporate traditional ways and Indigenous values, provide a unique opportunity to enhance the sport experiences of Indigenous youth. In fact, research shows that engaging Indigenous youth in traditional games can promote cultural pride, interaction with elders and connection to the land, as well as physical literacy and fundamental movement skills.

Physical and health education teachers and coaches are experts at helping kids learn new skills. By patiently walking students through each learning step, they build the blocks of learners’ physical literacy. However, sport and recreation experiences aren’t built on physical skills alone. Instead, the experiences are wrapped in life lessons, personal growth and a few hard knocks. At the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), we designed a new True Sport resource with those teachable moments in mind. This resource provides educators with a series of activities that focus on developing physical and ethical literacy, side by side.

True Sport logo

Called The True Sport Experience – Volume 1: FUNdamentals, the new resource is endorsed by Physical and Health Education (PHE) Canada for educators, coaches and recreational leaders of children, aged 6 to 9. It presents a series of energetic and fun activities, featuring at least 1 of the 7 True Sport Principles, for use in classrooms and on playgrounds or community sports fields. Using this resource, teachers can help their students discover the values at the heart of sport.

The 7 True Sport Principles are: Go for it, Play fair, Keep it fun, Stay healthy, Respect others, Include everyone, and Give back. The principles promote the kind of sport experiences that most Canadians already believe in and practise. That is, sport that’s fair, promotes excellence, fosters inclusion and is fun.

Why ethical literacy?

In short, The True Sport Experience is a blueprint intended to create positive sport and recreation experiences. It marries physical literacy activities with ethical literacy learning objectives.

Children riding bikes outside

Many of us are familiar with physical literacy, described as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life” (International Physical Literacy Association, 2020). But, ethical literacy may be a new concept. At the CCES, we define ethical literacy as “the ability to collect and evaluate information, reflect on one’s own moral values, identify the potential outcomes of various options and their impacts, make reasoned decisions about which options align with one’s values, act consistently with one’s values, explain one’s decisions, and take responsibility for one’s actions.”

That sounds like a concept for adults, but the activities in The True Sport Experience are developmentally appropriate for kids in the FUNdamentals stage of Sport for Life’s Long-term development (LTD) in sport and physical activity. Kids will explore, apply and evaluate how their personal values influence their ethical decision-making, in real time, through structured and unstructured play environments.

For example, the Heart Healthy Bingo activity mixes tasks like doing 20 jumping jacks and telling a peer the reason it’s important to drink enough water. Such tasks should get kids talking about how to stay healthy in both mind and body. In the “Include Everyone” chapter, the Musical Hoops activity reinforces the idea that inclusive games can increase health and enjoyment for all. In that activity, you remove hoops from the game, but the players stay. No one is left out of the game and instead the players team up inside the remaining hoops!

A Minds On pre-game discussion helps educators set the stage for each activity. Minds On also includes a set of post-game questions to guide educators through ways to draw out learnings from the participants.

Children learning the alphabet while doing interesting tasks

What’s more, when physical literacy and ethical literacy are developed at the same time, kids gain additional life skills. For example, they strengthen their executive functions, a family of mental processes. Executive functions enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions or rules, see things from a different perspective, respond to novel or unpredictable circumstances, and juggle multiple tasks successfully (Diamond, 2013).

In addition to the resource’s activities, there’s a summary of physical literacy, ethical literacy and LTD in sport and physical activity. Specific connections are made to each within the activities, which align with current Canadian physical and health education curriculums. Every activity includes discussion prompts, assessment tools and special considerations, where applicable.

Gaining the industry’s quality stamp of approval

PHE Canada’s endorsement of The True Sport Experience is an instantly recognizable stamp within the physical and health education sector, certifying and communicating quality. PHE Canada’s endorsement process involved consultation with an advisory team of experienced educators and sector experts from across Canada. That team recognized the resource for its support of quality physical and health education programming and the promotion of healthy learning environments for students.

Conclusion

“I truly believe everyone deserves and should expect a positive sporting experience,” says Grant McManes, a retired educator, True Sport Champion, and a PHE Canada board representative for Manitoba-Nunavut. “Through this resource, educators, coaches and others may set the stage for introducing the True Sport Principles in a fun and interactive way to children as they’re beginning to explore sport. This will allow them to both understand the principles and embody them throughout their daily and sporting experiences.”

Portrait of happy physical education teacher during class at school gym.Educators play an important role in the development of physical and ethical literacy of Canadian children. Physical literacy is a cornerstone of physical education and sport development, but ethical literacy is often an afterthought. Lessons in The True Sport Experience bring ethical literacy development to an equal footing with physical skill development.

By using The True Sport Experience in the classroom, community and beyond, educators can unlock the potential for a lifetime of positive sport and recreation experiences. Their students will be more likely to value physical activity and to seek out and nurture similar experiences throughout their lives. In turn, they could help form a generation of Canadians who recognize that good sport can make a significant difference.

About True Sport

The True Sport Principles define Canada’s commitment to values-based sport. True Sport is an initiative of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. It gives people, communities and organizations the means to leverage the many benefits of good sport from a platform of shared values and principles. Learn more at truesport.ca.

Physical literacy – the motivation, confidence, competence, and knowledge to be physically active for life – is considered by some to be the essential ingredient to lifelong physical activity. But how is it developed? Analysis of participant outcomes from a two-week day camp design to increase physical literacy showed promising results from a mix of fundamental movement skill activities, sport-specific activities, and games of low organization.

The Physical Literacy Environmental Assessment (PLEA) tool examines four domains to determine the extent to which sport and physical activity programs support the development of physical literacy amongst children and youth: environment, programming, leaders and staff, and values and goals, The tool can also be used as a checklist when planning and delivering a physical activity-based program.

Longitudinal studies allow us to observe behavioural changes and identify patterns over time, providing unique insight on how behaviours are affected by life events. New research using data from the Monitoring Activities of Teenagers to Comprehend their Habits (MATCH) study, which followed nearly 1,000 children for eight years, describes how Canadian youth follow different trajectories of specific health-related behaviours during the transition from childhood to adolescence. Learn more.

Gamification is the use of game techniques, such as the allocation of points and rewards, to provide incentive and fuel the competitive spirit in aspects of life outside of sport (Bunchball, 2020). Examples are abundant, and include Points Days at Shoppers Drug Mart, using an Aeroplan credit card to earn travel miles, or opening a SCENE debit account to earn free movies. Fundamentally, gamification is about stimulating engagement and offering incentive for decisions. This can be used to drive areas of existing interest, as with the everyday runner or walker starting to use a FitBit and then going that extra kilometre to earn their Kilimanjaro badge; or the mix of product, service and technology can also add a little more fun and excitement to behaviours that are often ignored or not given much thought, such as completion of program evaluation surveys among children and youth participating in Sport For Development programs.  

Challenges in a youth Sport for Development setting

In 2017, MLSE LaunchPad set out to gamify how youth engage in a community sport setting. This was not about the actual sports being coached at the facility – it was about how youth interact with and experience a community-based sport organization. Our approach to gamification considered registration, relationships, attendance, program evaluation and whether incentives earned through a gamified experience could influence motivation – one key component that contributes to physical literacy and other outcomes of interest to sport programmers (Chen, 2015).

In applying this approach in practice, MLSE LaunchPad initially piloted a values-based currency of points and digital rewards to intentionally stimulate engagement related to priority challenges at the facility. Implementation of two tactical approaches formed the foundation of an early strategy:

  1. Providing youth with the ability to earn points for attendance, with bonus rewards for attendance streaks or perfect attendance, as a means to increase consistency in attendance and reduce ghosting (youth not showing up to a program for which they had registered).
  2. Providing youth with the ability to earn points and bonus rewards for the completion of a program evaluation activity before or after their program, to address challenges with low survey completion rates.

An innovative platform for youth engagement

Recognizing the potential of an effective gamification strategy to drive essential youth behaviours, MLSE Scoreboard™ was born – a digital platform for youth engagement, program evaluation, and program and facility management.  Part digital infrastructure, part loyalty rewards, and all engaging – anytime, from any device.

The system has two core components, which have advanced the implementation of the tactics described above:

Points as a key to success

During three years of testing, implementation and refinement with hundreds of programs and thousands of youth, one of the most critical insights has been that from the participant perspective, points are a currency. One key to success has been the intentional alignment of how points are earned with our values. For example, MLSE LaunchPad values the development of prosocial life skills and promotes the benefits of showing up, trying new things, and engaging positively with peers and staff. Consistent with these values, the life cycle of a typical program gives participants opportunities to earn points for living these values, including points for consistent attendance, multi-sport engagement, participating in evaluation activities, and engaging positively in program activities. Points are not earned for talent or sport performance. Youth reach the top of the leaderboard by actively embracing the diversity of sport programs on offer, showing up consistently, pushing themselves, and listening to their coaches and mentors. In essence, the points system is a currency of engagement. Over time, with the point system integrated into the fabric of the organization and its programs, the system can be adapted and refined by staff to address other priorities.

Refining the process

With the launch of MLSE Scoreboard and its points-based currency, youth response rates to program evaluation surveys jumped to 85%. However, some process issues persisted. Early in the MLSE Scoreboard journey, an evaluation station or “rotation” was integrated into a program’s first and last day where youth would go to a classroom or tablet station to complete the program evaluation survey. With MLSE Scoreboard available as a digital, mobile-friendly platform, evaluation staff began releasing pre-program surveys a full week in advance, with bonus points available for early completion. The results were swift – approximately two thirds of youth logged in from home to complete their baseline survey before the start of the program. This increased efficiencies in data collection, but perhaps more importantly, provided two sources of time savings for staff. First, fewer participants leaving program activities to complete a survey helps optimize the time they have for coaching and sport program experience. Second, 2/3 of youth completing surveys from home helps reduce demands on staff time, enabling them to focus on youth who need extra support to complete their survey onsite. For all the prospective benefits of a gamification strategy, none of it is useful if busy staff do not see value in terms of their most prized commodity: time (Ontario Nonprofit Network, 2018).

Tips for applying these concepts in your setting

1. Know your values

There is no homogenous population and different groups behave differently. Being aware of the challenges your participants may be experiencing and the values your organization wants to promote will inform smart and practical goals in building your own points currency. MLSE LaunchPad developed our points system around accountability for showing up, trying new things, and the development of prosocial life skills. What behaviours does your organization value?

2. Start small

We recommend focusing on a small number of concrete objectives while your staff and participants get comfortable with the system. At MLSE LaunchPad, early iterations awarded points to build engagement around attendance and evaluation. While fun custom challenges and other nuances have been added, starting with a simple focus helped staff develop comfort with the points system while generating excitement among youth around clear, achievable goals.

3. Have fun with your challenges

Whatever your engagement goals, encourage staff creativity and learn from participants to build gamified challenges that are fun and fresh while also reinforcing program content and behavioural goals. Physical literacy and the development of functional movement skills have been an intentional programming focus for younger youth at MLSE LaunchPad. As youth advance in age, the development of life skills such as social competence becomes the programmatic focus. Staff are empowered to award points or create challenges for observed examples of youth demonstrating growth in these life skill areas. For example, an MLSE Scoreboard challenge was established where youth earned points for introducing themselves to new mental health counsellors and getting to know them as people, helping to facilitate a warm introduction and reducing barriers to accessing this new service for youth and families. 

4. Incentives need not be costly

Yes, MLSE LaunchPad has access to team-branded merchandise for youth to redeem. However, in our journey we have learned that the points themselves provide more drive for engagement than any item or prize on offer. Most participants choose not to redeem in favour of building up their point totals to achieve goals or compete with their peers. Access to a leaderboard with peers is an essential enabler of the healthy competition that an engaging and values-driven points system can facilitate. Online rewards such as digital “badges” can be earned and accumulated, for example, related to a specific life skill, an act of positivity, or leveling up their sport participation. This type of reward is similar to the way points are used in favourite video games – except in this case, winning the game involves demonstrating the characteristics and attributes we work to promote through long-term quality sport engagement.

For those more extrinsically motivated, points redemption can take on many forms. We find smaller accessories such as wristbands and bracelets popular among 6-10 year-olds, and sport accessories such as water bottles and t-shirts popular among 11-14-year-olds. Experiential rewards are popular among older youth, such as a movie night donated by a sponsor, admission to a special event, or an earned privilege like choosing what the team eats at an end-of-season dinner. 

5. Learn and adapt

This article provides a framework for how the gamification of youth sport engagement has worked in a youth Sport For Development setting. Every program, culture and population are different, and what works in one environment may not be perfectly adaptable to another. Conceptually, it is helpful to think about a system of gamification through points as a choose-your-own-adventure platform, where organizations have the flexibility to tailor and evolve their system over time against the most pressing engagement goals or challenges as defined by them. People are not static, and as they grow and what motivates them evolves, those of us working with them must keep our approaches fresh, relevant and engaging.  

If you need a sounding board or would like to ideate about what a values-based points currency could look like for your organization, don’t hesitate to reach out to the MLSE LaunchPad Research and Evaluation team. 

Recommended Resources

Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). Engaging youth in evaluation processes. SIRCuit Article.

Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). The gamification of evaluation for non profits and charities. Imagine Canada 360 Blog.