The obesity crisis, which we hear about on an almost daily basis, is challenging our country in ways not seen before. It’s feared that obesity-related health issues will bankrupt families and insurance companies, overwhelm or destroy our health care system, and ultimately lower the quality of life for future generations. In the midst of this predicament, states are either dropping or reducing physical education requirements and coaches of youth sport at the club and high school levels are seeing a growing lack of skills in children involved in team play.
It’s not hard to see how these events might be connected. Video games and television keep children preoccupied for hours. Parents in many areas are reluctant to allow children outside for unsupervised play. Add to this the dwindling amounts of state mandated physical education during school hours and obesity is almost inevitable.
This decline in physical activity causes many children to miss a critical period of development related to learning and the mastering of fundamental movement skills. Such skills include rolling, jumping, tumbling, throwing, and a list of at least thirty other ways of moving. Just as learning to read is the foundation of literacy, these movement skills are the foundation of what educators refer to as physical literacy.
According to James Mandigo of Brock University in Canada, “to be physically literate includes the ability to move with poise and confidence across a wide range of activities.” Ability and confidence are exactly what a growing number of children lack when it comes to physical skill. Children begin learning fundamental movement skills at very young ages with the prime learning period being between the ages of 7 and 11. During this period, children learn fundamental movements quickly; in fact, almost effortlessly. But after this period, starting approximately at 12 years of age, fundamental skills have to be learned remedially as many youth sport coaches and physical education teachers are aware. Unfortunately, children who have not mastered fundamental movements by the age of 12 are unlikely to ever master them.
Without the physical know-how for participating in games and sports, children lose interest; while at the same time, they become less able to ever engage in them. This lack of physical literacy among youngsters might also help explain the rising rates of obesity. A simple lack of physical skill may be reason enough for some children to remain inactive. For those who do join youth sport programs, a lack of physical literacy is a major reason for dropout.
The importance of learning fundamental movement skills at the proper time is only beginning to be understood. One thing that is certain is that children who lack basic movement skills are unlikely to participate in physical activity of any kind; thus causing concern for the future of our nation’s health.
Mr. Price is a faculty member at the United States Sports Academy. As a former swimming coach he served as executive director and head coach of the Saluki Swim Club in Carbondale, Illinois, and in Malaysia and Brunei as part of an Academy project team focusing on developing age-appropriate sports programs.