Physical literacy for confident, creative, healthy children (Dr. Vicki Harber)

December 5, 2011

What could be worse than being an overweight or obese child? Or a child that doesn’t know how to fail? Or how to stick with a difficult task?  Or a child who grows up in a fishbowl, cushioned in bubble-wrap and terrified of failure while expecting everything to be delivered on a silver platter? 

This is the modern day child.  We have successfully engineered a child that is unable to take risks, lacks imagination, lacks resilience and has an artificially inflated sense of self worth (Dweck C, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House, 2006). This does not bode well for the future health of Canadians or for its athletes aiming to compete abroad.

Many children do not participate in regular physical activity and sport, and they are deficient in physical literacy.  Instilling routine activity and supporting the acquisition of fundamental movement skills would help address, and perhaps halt, the growing number of children becoming overweight and obese. 

Quality physical activity and sport programs will also restore some desperately needed physical, cognitive, emotional and social challenges for our children.

Of course parents mean well; they want the best for their children.  They want their children to become whatever they want to become – artists, athletes, musicians, dancers, academics – and all while avoiding pain and hardship. 

Accordingly, they have stacked their children’s schedules with extracurricular activities, music lessons, league games – all of this over and above the day-to-day demands of going to school and keeping up with homework.  The resulting busy schedules keep parents and children apart.  Consequently, parents don’t trust their children to handle risk.  Fear dominates most decisions they make on behalf of their children. 

Research informs us that a parents’ worry for their child’s safety often translates into hovering (i.e. “helicopter parenting”) and actually contributes to the dangerously low levels of activity seen in our children and halts a child’s natural sense of wonder and curiosity (Floyd et al, 2011 Am J Preventive Med).

Where does this lead us? The effects of excess adiposity pale in comparison to children lacking in creativity, devoid of imagination, unable to deal with new, novel and challenging situations.  Isn’t this what life requires as an adult? 

How have we managed to strip away the very essence of childhood, its spontaneity, where children learn through experimenting and exploring?  We have deprived our children of many basic experiences that serve as the foundation for becoming an independent adult.

If you are a parent with small children, I encourage you to learn more about physical literacy and its broader implications for child physical, mental and social development. You can learn more about physical literacy by visiting Active for Life.ca or the Physical Literacy section of our website.


Dr. Vicki Harber is a Professor in the Faculty of Physical Education & Recreation at the University of Alberta and a member of the Canadian Sport for Life Leadership Team. Her research examines the metabolic and hormonal responses to physical activity and dietary intake in women. Vicki's background in sport is broad and was a member of the Canadian Olympic Rowing team. She has completed the IOC Sport Nutrition diploma, is a Director with the Edmonton Sport Council, has coached an elite girl’s soccer team and is the author of "The Female Athlete Perspective," a Canadian Sport for Life resource.