Physical Literacy and Community Outreach in Canadian YMCAs

Thursday, August 6, 2015

YMCAs across Canada have begun integrating physical literacy into their programming, reaching out into the communities around them to ensure people have the opportunity to live active, healthy lives. Sport for Life had a chance to ask the members of five different YMCAs about their physical literacy initiatives: how they started, what challenges they have faced, and what their goals are.

Carolyn Tyner (CT) is the Manager of Program Development, YMCA Canada

Andre Gallant (AG) is the CEO, YMCA of Cape Breton

Shawna MacLellan (SM) is the Manager of Community Outreach and Day Camp, YMCA of Hamilton/Burlington/Brantford

Tammy Goodwin (TG) is the Program Manager of Health, Fitness & Aquatic Centres, YMCA of Northern Alberta

Jennie Petersen (JP) is the General Manager of Wellness Programs, YMCA Calgary


What was the motivation for your YMCA to begin adopting physical literacy?

CT: We’ve always been focused on the health and well-being of children. But in recent years, the Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card – which was taken over by ParticiPACTION in 2015 – has helped re-enforce our commitment to increase the physical activity and overall health of children. The notion of physical literacy really aligns with the work we do with kids and building every child’s potential. Physical literacy is a critical part of reaching that potential in every stage of development, beginning in childhood and continuing throughout the rest of our lives.

AG: We hear so often from coaches in all kinds of sports that when kids reach high performance levels, they really have to undo some of the fundamentals because the kids weren't taught properly at the earlier stages. We should be part of the equation here – if the YMCA is doing kids’ programs on Saturday morning in our gyms, let’s make sure that when they go to gymnastics or trampoline or freestyle skiing, they are not having to undo the technique that we might've taught them in our little kids programs.

SM: The YMCA has always had a focus on being active; however, the term physical literacy within my department is relatively new. My department was being mandated by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport to implement physical literacy and the Ministry was providing a lot of the training and the coaching certificates for the front line staff. But it wasn’t until I went to the Ontario Physical Literacy Summit 2014 and started to understand the value – the long-term value, the short-term value, just the overall value – of quality physical literacy programming. From there, we had all of our Beyond the Bell sites trained and started implementing physical literacy. Building physical literacy will help kids now and down the road, and will eventually lead to less of a strain on the healthcare system.

TG: We looked at physical literacy as an organization and we could see the active for life path, the recreation and sport path. We saw how the YMCA could fit into this and how we have the right audience to work with physical literacy. From there, we got to work on trying to change the minds of the department heads by sending them to physical literacy training so they could understand it's not just about elite athlete training, it's not just about Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD). And that is kind of how the seed started.

Check out these two Prezis from the YMCA of Northern Alberta:

JP: In May 2014 Ashley Fox, Be Fit For Life Physical Literacy Coordinator, and Lea Norris, Sport for Life Society’s Director of Engagement, delivered a presentation on the Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) framework and physical literacy to our strategic leadership team. Some of us already knew about this approach and that it was taking off in other places, so we decided as a leadership team that we wanted to use this model as a philosophy to help guide our programming. In November, I attended a regional YMCA event where Tammy Goodwin did a presentation on physical literacy in the day camps and it showed a lot of success, so that was a turning point as well. When I started in this role in December [2014] it became a big part of my job to move physical literacy ahead.


Can you provide an overview of your physical literacy initiatives?

CT: In early 2014, we gathered representatives from different Ys across the country to look at physical literacy delivery. We created a physical literacy module and integrated it with our existing YMCA Healthy Child Development training. Physical literacy has always been a part of what we do when working with children and teaching them physical skills, like in our national swimming program. The new module incorporates the CS4L framework and the language now being used for physical literacy. Part 1 of our new physical literacy module is an online module that staff can do to learn what physical literacy is and why it’s important. It outlines the CS4L framework and includes CS4L physical literacy resources to help staff understand why they should work this way with kids. Part 2 is an in-person module that is delivered on-site at the local YMCA. We’re looking at using physical literacy as the basis to build our national health and fitness children's programs.

AG: We are dealing with this fairly significant change in our federation model and our teaching plan from over the last number of years so we haven't really got to this level of program discussion yet, but I would like to see our YMCA swim program do what Red Cross has done where if you become a YMCA swim instructor – and we have our own curriculum – then you are also getting your first level of national coaching certification so that Swimming Canada recognizes our curriculum and our teaching  methodology as being appropriate for entering into the coaching stream. 

One of the programs that we have going here is an all-ages fencing program that started as a local non-competitive fencing club. They essentially rented our facility and tried to recruit members from within our youth and adult membership. We suggested that instead of being an independent club where everyone pays fees to the provincial association and pays insurance costs without competing, that they become a program of the Y instead. That way we could look after all the registration, financials, insurance, bookings and promotion, and all they would have to do was provide volunteers to instruct. If they get kids that are developing a higher skill level and want to compete, then they can match them with another club that actually does competition. This isn’t a YMCA team or anything like that, it’s simply a program at the Y where we've got skill development that is coming right out of the Canadian Fencing handbook.

SM: All of our Beyond the Bell sites are trained in physical literacy and have a lot of materials that will specifically target specific skills, but at the same time keep everything fun. When we were first teaching skills, it wasn’t necessarily fun – we would just get all the kids in a line and say, okay, everybody do an overhand throw, now do an underhand throw, now do crossovers. There wasn’t any fun to it. When I went to the Ontario Physical Literacy Summit I learned that you can tie all this training into games and make it fun. We’ve implemented the PLAY Tools in all 13 sites, and one of the great things about physical literacy is that you can actually assess it.

With our day camp programs, we have implemented some physical literacy and skill building into them, and tried to incorporate the language as well. Staff focuses on fundamental movement skills as a basis for how they run their programs. When kids come for a week at a time, they still want to scrimmage and we want to do what they want to do, but we offer a bit more instruction around the fundamental skills and try and get them to use them in the scrimmages.  

The school-age childcare centre programming is really child directed and more free-flow than Beyond the Bell, and we want each program to be unique. These programs are licensed by the Ministry of Education and deliver at least 20 minutes of outside time every day. We’re hoping that when the staff go outside to program plan, they are being a little bit more intentional about building some physical literacy skills. We are not doing any assessments either, it's just more of the education piece and encouraging staff to accommodate those skills at this point.

We also had a mobile outreach community outreach program called Y on Wheels where we’d go into Inner City neighbourhoods and provide free recreation programs whenever they want to, wherever they want, and in whatever space they want. And it's all free. We do six-week programs, often in the schools, and the staff are all trained in PLAY Tool delivery.

TG: Basically, we’ve incorporated multisport into our specific sport programs and day camps for children aged six to eight. Whether it’s adding sports to our soccer program or partnering volleyball and basketball, we don’t believe children should specialize at that age so we brought programs together.

We put the LTAD framework right into our program brochure. We posted it outside the doors on big huge posters or on bulletin boards that shows what’s going on in the gym right now and why – and then the parents understood the changes. When we present multisport programs, nobody registers, so we just kept the sport-specific names and added other sports. Now the parents are happy (shown through registration) and the kids are happy.

JP: We started by bringing on board a practicum student from Mount Royal University to help develop some physical literacy resources, a manual and games that incorporated physical literacy, and then we tried using timing and some very basic training in our spring day camp. We also had Ashley Fox deliver a Move & Play through Physical Literacy workshop in March 2015, and completed citywide physical literacy facilitator training for day camp supervisory staff in June. We started to get requests to run more workshops across our Association from there, and our staff that have been trained are now doing presentations of their own.

In addition to children’s programs, we are changing our adult program model to align with the LTAD framework and have started to look at ways we can implement more physical literacy into our adult programs. We also have a free Grade 6 membership program offered in partnership with the Calgary Flames Foundation where Grade 6 students can partake in a wide variety of free programs – we’re also looking at ways to introduce physical literacy into those programs.


It seems that physical literacy programming has increased the YMCA’s level of collaboration with outside organizations and the community as a whole. How has your YMCA benefited from this collaboration?

CT: We had Vicki Harber and Gary Shelton present a webinar for Ys across the country about integrating physical literacy from a community approach. We encouraged each YMCA across Canada to research its community, see what's going on and work with programs and organizations within the community. A number of Ys have spoken about the benefits of collaborating with community organizations. It allows partners to bring their strengths together to develop and deliver programming more efficiently.

AG: We are a small market Y with potential for a really big impact. But we can't achieve that kind of an impact by ourselves because we simply don't have the resources for it. We are financially strapped. If we are going to do anything, whether it’s in childcare or client services or physical activity or first stages of athlete development, we have got to do it with somebody else. By collaborating with the fencing club, we established a new program for all ages. If we can get our swimming instructors recognized as introductory coaches, that will lead to collaboration with Swimming Canada and alignment with the National Coaching Certification Program. But right now the majority of our resources and energy is absorbed with maintaining the day-to-day standards.

SM: What’s interesting is that the Y has many recreation programs but as part of a community movement, we are learning the language and importance of fundamental movement skills that in turn build physical literacy. We have been attending conferences and hearing experts discuss physical literacy and we will be having an expert speak to our leadership team soon. The community education piece helps us to stay in touch with what is happening in each of our three communities.

TG: We collaborated on NCCP FMS Train the Trainer-type of training together with the City of Edmonton, City of St Albert, Be Fit for Life, University of Alberta Steadward Centre, and other groups and we did the training together. We now have a pattern where we run it three times a year and can open it up to other organizations. Day camp is the other area where we have invited other organizations to attend our day camp training to get their NCCP, FMS and HIGH FIVE Sport training.

I have worked in the recreation industry for almost 30 years, and the one thing that I really like about physical literacy is everybody unites under it. The recreation industry can be very competitive, even between YMCA and municipalities – we are always competing for the same people and we didn't often collaborate. But groups like PLAY Great have really demonstrated that collaboration actually can work really well and be very strong in the recreation industry. It's not as competitive as we thought it was when we have the right platform to unite under.

JP: One example is the PLAY Calgary group that has a number of different organizations involved, and there are also a few subgroups beneath that now. We have a training subgroup for day camp staff that includes a number of recreational providers in Calgary who do summer day camps that sit together on a committee to develop training for their staff. There is also an Active Start and Active for Life subgroup that a number of our staff are involved with. It’s quite neat because it is giving us a chance to hear where other people are at and try and work together and face the barriers together, so to speak, and not duplicate effort because there is not a lot of standardization around training yet. It’s benefitted us because we didn’t have to go through the learning process by ourselves, which a lot of organizations had to, so we’re actually benefitting from the learnings of other recreation providers.

Calgary YMCA is expanding and over the next two years we are going to become the largest recreation provider in Calgary, with three new rec centres opening up along with a large child-care centre. We’ve developed a partnership with the Calgary Public Library to develop an early literacy tool kit that will include components of like reading and writing, along with physical literacy. As a result of that partnership, I was asked to give a presentation to the public library early literacy staff on physical literacy and what it is about. It's kind of a different group to get involved with because their backgrounds aren't necessarily the recreation/kinesiology type crew that we usually work with, so it has opened up other doors, which is great.


What are some of the challenges the YMCA has faced in implementing physical literacy programming?

CT: It is challenging to implement physical literacy in drop-in programs. Physical literacy has two parts: the first is doing those specific activities with children, and the second is progressional experience. So if a child is working on a certain aspect of a catch one week, and returns the next week, they move a little bit further ahead. With drop-in programs, we may not see the kids on a regular basis, or they might not have the same instructor when they return. They might come once a week or every other week or once a month. In those types of programs, a lack of consistency makes it difficult to identify that progression. That has been the main challenge. But YMCAs across the country are really excited for physical literacy because it gives some great structure to what we've already been doing.

AG: Because we aren’t quite there yet with our programming, we haven’t identified any barriers, but we know that implementing LTAD – and the language around high-performance sport – is not what everybody wants. So language will definitely be a challenge, even using the word sport or athlete is enough to turn some people away and has set up a mental barrier with a lot of recreation and physical activity leaders across the country.

SM: We’re using the PLAY Tools in 18 programs right now, but I think we’re going to go back to measuring five skills with PLAY Basic. We have a lot of children in our programs and when you’re not an expert at assessing, it does take a while. We’ve identified that our managers have to be trained, but the afterschool sector has such a huge turnover in staff so you’ll do so much training with a staff person but they don't tend to stay. You have to really make sure that the whole site is educated and that the managers are educated so that when that one individual staff person leaves they're not taking all that knowledge with them and then the PLAY Tool evaluations are suspended until you get a new manager or new supervisor trained. That is a huge, ongoing challenge and I don't really know if there's a way to stop that. Sport for Life has helped out a little bit on the PLAY Tool evaluations because they have YouTube videos that show some of the different movements, so that helps out a little bit with training some of the new stuff but definitely staff turnover and the ability to get some of the assessments done or the ability to properly “teach” physical literacy is decreased when’re dealing with high staff turnover.

TG: Once we got everyone trained and everyone understanding physical literacy, we looked internally and realized that maybe we weren’t running our programs the best we could. We had lineups in the gymnasium – one child running through the pylons and then kick the ball into the net while the rest of the kids stand in line and wait their turn. This was not promoting physical literacy when most of the kids weren’t active until their turn. Every child needs to have a ball, every child needs to be active – so we’ve had to be more creative in how we organize our classes.

On the parent side, one challenge was incorporating the multi-sport approach in sport-specific classes because they didn’t want to register for multisport. Parents would see their child touching the balls with their hands in soccer class as warm up or playing with balloons or beach balls instead of soccer balls and sometimes they would ask why? We’d have to explain to them about physical literacy and Long-Term Athlete Development, so that can be a challenge.

JP: Just understanding what physical literacy means and the concept behind it. It’s a broad concept that might mean something different to people at different times and we often hear people say they are already doing this – that’s not untrue of course, as we are doing a lot of programming that incorporates the elements of physical literacy, but the difference in my mind is that it’s about intentionally designing our programs around the physical literacy concepts. Sometimes it’s really hard to get everyone thinking on the same page about what this looks like.

Another challenge is around budget and where we put our money for staff training and time and all that kind of stuff. There is only so much we can do at one time and resources are not endless. I think we are still going to see those barriers going forward, but we recognize them. And one other challenge that I’d like to see us address is the adult side of physical literacy because we see a lot of older adults in here and this area just hasn’t developed as much as it has on the children/youth area in the physical literacy field in general.


What are some of the YMCA’s goals?

CT: We are still at the planning stage, so the short-term goals are getting YMCAs knowledgeable about physical literacy. Our short-term goals are centred around increasing awareness and ensuring Ys have the tools they need to educate their staff, from the frontline all the way up to the supervisor or director level. Our long-term goal is to see each YMCA integrate physical literacy into its programming.

AG: Making sure we train our early childhood educators and making sure we do effective communication with the right language. I think it’s key to have a common model for sport for life with multiple stages, and we want to apply those stages as the basis for our activities.

SM: Beyond expansion of our programs – getting more staff trained, doing more PLAY Tool assessments, and getting more children involved in physical literacy programming – we want to see the benefits of recreation trickle into the academic side of things. There’s a lot of research that shows that when you’re more physically active you’re more ready to learn.

TG: Our long-term goal is to be a little bit more reputable in the sport world. Because the YMCA is kind of known as more of a place to go when your child is not good at sports or where skilled kids don’t necessarily go, we want to change that reputation for the children. We still want to be that place all children can go to build their confidence and physical competence through positive movement experiences, but we also want to appeal to the broader sector so that children who have some sport competence would consider coming as well.

Also, we want to start assessing the children. We have only been assessing ourselves as an organization and our instructors with their lesson planning around physical literacy, but we need to do some benchmarking and some before-and-after for the kids. We have a couple of ideas around this. One is to take a tool, like the PLAY Tools, and just start using it, and the other is to come up with something a little simpler, like a physical literacy report card that says, “you’re doing really well at the following elements of physical literacy: _______ and to help you continue to grow in your physical literacy, we recommend you consider doing the following activities: _______”. It could be something that they could do at school, at home, out in the community or at the YMCA.

JP: As we open up these new facilities we’re going to be doubling in size, which is also going to help us expand and broaden our reach and to deepen our impact. There are two ways to think about impact: how many people we reach and the depth in which we reach them. Physical literacy will allow us to offer even higher quality levels of programming – and at the end of the day, help us meet our mandate in the community. Kids in our programs will develop the movement skills and confidence they need to be active for life, which is a big part of our vision and our mission in building healthy communities.


Why is physical literacy important?

CT: Physical literacy is important to individuals because it’s part of everyone’s lifelong way of being. We know children who develop good movement skills in general grow up to be adults with skills that are essential for everyday living. Physical literacy is also essential if you want to do any sort of physical activity, sport, or recreational activity – even walking requires a level of physical literacy. For communities, it’s really important so that people can get out and be active together. When we do, we improve the health outcomes of entire communities.

AG: I think about healthy living as adults; we lose a lot of the sense of play and fun and we start to equate health with hard work. We have got to keep activity fun from the get-go. We don’t want to have to retrain people. Physical literacy is as much about socialization and the kinds of games that we play as children as it is about the physical skills that we are developing – it might be even more important.

SM: One of the immediate benefits of teaching kids fundamental movement skills is the literacy language that comes with that. Their understanding of skills and movements improves, which will allow them to be more adept and knowledgeable in terms of sports. If a teacher says, okay do a crossover, they won’t be like um, what? If they learn these skills in elementary school and enhance them through their high school years, then by the time they are seniors they will hopefully be having less accidents that create this drain on the healthcare system.

TG: It's all about having positive physical activity experiences. I was one of those children that was very fortunate to have positive experiences in sport, but I know lots of people that didn't. Those negative experiences has made it a lot more difficult for them to be active for life. We see adults in fitness classes at the Y who had negative experiences and now can’t do the basic skills that they should’ve developed as children. With physical literacy, it’s about developing those movement skills and building that confidence and competence as well as having positive experiences.

JP: The whole concept of physical literacy creates a paradigm shift in how we think about health, wellness and physical activity. The old model of fitness testing and working toward fitness goals is intimidating and can be exclusive, whereas this approach will kind of equal the playing field and just open up the door for everyone and not just those people who always have that natural ability to be good at sport or physical activity or to be super fit. It also helps identify the different phases or places that adults may be at, regardless of their fitness level – when you break it down you have the physical literacy piece, the fit for life piece and the competitive for life piece in Stage 7 of LTAD. It makes you think differently about what people as adults go through and that you really need a variety of options and opportunities so that people can find the programming that helps them stay active for life.