This is a simplified definition of physical activity. Children can be physically active at different levels of intensity.
Physical literacy is somewhat different than simply being physically active. There is more purpose or intention to physical literacy as shown in this definition.
Parents have been hearing for a long time now about the importance of our child’s early years. A child’s preschool years, we’re told, prepare our children to be successful in school and in life. These first years also set the habits that our children will carry throughout their lifetimes – to be active, healthy, and productive adults.
For years, we have been debating which is most important for our children’s growth and development: is it nature (our genetic inheritance) or nurture (how we support, love, and raise our children)? The old nature vs nurture debate. Now scientists argue that what is most important is how we nurture nature. In other words, children are born with a genetic inheritance but we can actually impact or mediate that genetic inheritance by the environments in which we raise children. The concept is known as epigentics and can be thought of as little switches on our genes. We may have a genetic tendency towards something (compulsive behaviour, for example) but the environment in which we are raised can cause the switch to be turned on or off. This means that we can actually change a baby’s initial brain structure after birth – in either positive or negative ways. If an environment is loving and supportive, the changes may be positive. However, if an environment is negative as in cases of abuse, neglect, or trauma, the change may be negative.
A child’s brain is the most amazing organ in his body. At full growth, it weighs about three pounds and is composed primarily of water and fat. These three pounds allow a child to walk and talk, to laugh and cry, to love and play. Everything achild does, thinks, and feels, every wish, dream, regret, and hope she experiences is mediated by her brain. A child’s brain defines who she is.The architecture of a baby’s brain begins to develop about three weeks after conception. This slide shows a neuron, the most basic brain cell. At birth, there are 15 times more brain cells in our baby’s head than there are people on the planet!With the exception of the area of the brain responsible for basic life functions like breathing, most of these neurons are unconnected at birth. For the brain to function, the neurons must connect with each other.
As a baby grows, so does her brain. Each time she experiences a tickle from her dad or a smile from her mom, the neurons in her brain make a new connection, called a synapsis. The arrow in the image points to a synapsis. A baby’s brain has the ability to make trillions (really!) of connections – to learn any language spoken on earth, to become a mathematician or an athlete, to become passionate about a cause.We can think about these synapses or connections as tiny wires and touch points that allow chemical signals to pass from neuron to neuron. These connections allow a child to perceive a father’s voice, a mother’s touch, and a shiny mobile turning over the crib. These connections are the brain’s foundation and set the course for all future coping and learning.
At birth, a baby’s brain is quite simple – many possibilities but there are connections only for reflexive functions such as breathing or swallowing. However, by the time a child is six years old, his brain will be incredibly dense – there will be more synapses or connections in his brain than at any other time in his life. He has unlimited potential. But a brain that is so dense, so full of connections, makes it difficult to respond quickly and efficiently. You may have noticed that, sometimes, ayoung child has to stop and think before responding. Like a road system with too many turn-offs and roundabouts, a densely connected brain can be confusing and slow to get around. So, in order to be more efficient, the brain starts pruning the connections that are not being used. The adage, “Use it or lose it!” is literally true for achild’s brain. This pruning starts during the elementary school years and continues at the rate of about 10,000 connections per minute for the rest of our lives! No wonder we worry about losing our minds as we age – we do!
Early childhoodNeuroscience has been giving us many clues about exactly why a child’s early years are so important. Scientists refer to the concept of brain architecture to explain how the structure of a child’s brain grows and develops. This new science is coming together into a core story about how building a child’s brain in the early years is like building a house.How can we support building a strong brain architecture for our child in the early years? After all, the brain we are born with must last our lifetime – we only get one brain. To answer that, we can think of the neuroscientists’ analogy that building a strong brain for our child is like building a sturdy house for our family. When building our house, we start with a firm level foundation. Then we construct strong walls, ensure that the wiring and plumbing are properly done, and then cover all with a weatherproof roof. We choose durable building materials that will last a lifetime.Likewise, we can think about helping our child build a strong brain which will last a lifetime. When we want to help our child develop physical literacy, we choose physical activity and good nutrition as two of the durable building materials our child needs to build a healthy brain and a healthy body.
The sturdy foundation consists of all of these things plus many more. This is the environment that I spoke about earlier that can actually nurture nature - the baby’s genetic inheritance.
Many preschool programs focus on these areas because parents are concerned about preparing their children for school. But the early years are about so much more than simply becoming ready for school – the early years set the trajectory for the rest of our children’s lives! This means preparing for a lifetime of successful learning, health, work, and family.
Physical Development is not only about growing taller and heavier. It is about a child learning how to control the large muscles (gross motor) in his torso, arms, and legs to jump, run, and kick. It is also about learning how to control the small muscles in his hands and fingers (fine motor) to hold a pencil, paint, and turn the pages of a book. It makes sense that physically active young children will experience positive physical effects. The obvious results are to physical health: healthy body, healthy heart, and healthy weight. In addition to fine and gross motor skills, physically active children develop better coordination and posture, and learn to move skillfully - strength, agility, balance, endurance, flexibility. But being physically literate also contributes to overall well-being. Recent studies have shown that, in our super busy lives, young children can mediate the effects of stress and anxiety, and learn to make healthy lifestyle choices when they are physically active – just like adults!
While experiences are the fundamental brain-building blocks, children can’t build alone. Relationships are how children best make use of the experiences they have. Child can never have too many positive nurturing relationships. I like to think about relationships as being like the legs of a table. A table with just one leg or no legs at all cannot stand. A table can stand with three legs but four or more is better! Some parents worry that children can really only form one strong attachment (with them!) but science is showing us that children can and, in fact, need many strong relationships in order to stand strong. When children have positive relationships with parents, extended family, neighbours, early childhood educators, and others, they have a strong support system to help them build their brains!Carefully choose adults to support children’s developing physical literacy. Choose people who enjoy what they do, who encourage children positively, who will help to mediate and work through disappointments or frustrations, who will themselves behave fairly and ethically towards others. These relationships build children’s growing sense of right and wrong, what is possible or achievable, what is fun and enjoyable, and perhaps, even some future dreams, goals, and aspirations! Adults are powerful role models!
When completing any major project like building a house or a brain, it is crucial to be organized. Scientists are learning more about an extremely important part of the brain which they have dubbed the executive function or the air traffic controller. This area is the pre-frontal cortex (across our foreheads) and begins to develop at about 3 years old. Interestingly, this area of the brain takes the longest time to develop. For young women, the process is completed when they are about 21 to 23. For young men, this process may not be completed until they are well into their mid twenties!This part of the brain enables children to access all the organizational skills that support their learning. Like an air traffic controller, executive functions allow children to maintain their focus or attention to a task and not be distracted by other things that are happening in the room. Children learn to regulate their emotions and express them at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. They learn to plan ahead and to follow increasingly more complex rules. Executive function is also important as children develop their physical literacy. Children learn to be team players, to play fair, to accept disappointments, to follow the rules of a game, and to set goals.
So far we have talked about the important requirements to successfully build a child’s brain. What can interfere or interrupt that process?All of us experience stress – its simply a part of life. Some stress is, indeed, positive. This is the kind of stress that we experience when we need to prepare for an exam or start a new job. For children, these stressors could be changing to a new child care centre or transitions during the day. Positive stress teaches us that we can cope, that we can respond to life’s challenges – we become stronger and more capable.Tolerable stressors are more serious. Often this type of stress can’t be either predicted or prevented. Many Canadians have been experiencing stress through severe weather such as recent floods and ice storms. If – and this is the crucial point – if this stress is mediated by supportive relationships, we can cope.Toxic stressors are also severe but they are chronic and long-lasting. Worse, they occur in the absence of supportive relationships. In some situations, toxic stress is caused by the very people who should be supportive as in cases of abuse, neglect, of domestic violence. The same stressors can be toxic or they can be tolerable. It all depends on how supported the child is during the time of stress.
Toxic stress is just that – it is toxic. It is actually built into the architecture of the child’s growing brain in the same way that faulty wiring may be installed in a house. When a child’s safety system is constantly on alert, it causes wear and tear on crucial portions of the brain of body which then simply break down and become unable to cope. This leaves the child unable to concentrate or learn. A child experiencing toxic stress may become hyper-vigilant and may lose the ability to know when something is dangerous or when it is normal. This can translate into behaviour challenges. Toxic stress also attacks the body’s immune system and leaves the child open to may health concerns throughout life.
Neuroscience is also showing us that the brain is ‘plastic’ meaning that it can repair and heal itself – to a degree. This is hopeful. A child who is impacted by toxic stress during the early years may be healed – but this process is long, difficult, and less effective than if the child’s brain is well built in the first place. In other words, its not all over when a child turns six!Science is suggesting that physical activity and literacy may be able to mediate symptoms of stress and anxiety. Children who are dealing with the effects of toxic stress benefit from physical activities. Research is showing that young children respond extremely well to activities such as music, movement, dancing, drumming, and yoga. Activities such as walking in natural areas, kicking through leaves, climbing trees, rolling down hills, sledding, skating, and swimming are also proving to be helpful in healing brains that have been impacted by toxic stress.
Now let’s switch to why physical literacy is so important in the early years.You don’t need to be a phys ed teacher to be able to support children’s physical literacy – far from it! In fact, the definition of physical literacy that we provided at the beginning – the motivation, confidence, and competence – to move, sounds a lot like the cycle of active play. The APPLE Model was designed to show how physical literacy can be enhanced by encouraging active play through curiosity, exploration, repetition to mastery, and confidence.
In other words, we all support children’s physical literacy when we provide quality active play!
We were excited when guidelines for physical activity and sedentary behaviour were released nationally for children from birth to four years of age. Previously, all guidelines started at age five.
Sedentary behaviour guidelines relate perfectly to our earlier comment that children learn by doing, through their senses. While there is the belief that very young children can learn through activities such as watching TV or videos, science tells us that children need to be active participants in their learning. The sedentary behaviour guidelines reflect that understanding.
What is our responsibility, then, to the young children in our lives? We need to attend to all four developmental domains – focusing on only one or even two or three does not help the child build a well-balanced brain. Physical literacy experiences that children have need to be positive. Ensure that children have the opportunity to explore all kinds of environments, are challenged but not overwhelmed, are dressed and prepared appropriately, that play time is finished before children are tired. In other words, make sure the experience of being physical active and literate is fun and motivating, leading them to develop confidence and competence in their ability to move. Then, they will continue to be physically active for a life time!Knowing what we now know about the types of stress, we also know that all children will experience stress. We need to ensure that each child has a network of supportive adults so that the stress becomes no more than tolerable. The more nurturing relationships that children have, the stronger their brains will be.
Physical Literacy and The Early Years:
Supporting Healthy Active Children
Dawne Clark, PhD
Mount Royal University
January 22, 2014
What is physical
Physical activity is any
• requires energy
• increases heart rate
• increases breathing
Physical Literacy means
Being physically active for
Why are physical activity
and physical literacy so
important in the early
The structure of the brain
developed in the first five
years sets the trajectory
for the rest of life:
Brains aren’t just born;
they are built
How do we help to build strong brains?
The core story of early brain development
Building a brain is like building a house.
A strong house that will last a
lifetime starts with
• a sturdy level foundation
• four solid walls
The sturdy foundation
A safe nurturing supportive environment
Family Caring Relationships
Freedom from Abuse and Neglect
Four walls: Four developmental domains
Often adults focus on only three of
the developmental walls
• speak, read, write, and count
• think through situations, plan ahead, and solve
• understand emotions and express them in
• make friends, share, and play with others
• learn self-control and be able to deal with
…because they believe that
children are naturally active. But…
• 35% of two to five year old children in
Canada are overweight or obese
• Several Canadian studies indicate that
young children are inactive for more than
three quarters of their waking day
• In Canada, approximately 70% of
preschool children spend up to 10 hours a
day in non-parental group care
Why physical activity and literacy?
Physical growth and health
• Healthy body, heart, and weight
• Small muscle control – draw, print
• Large muscle control – run, jump, kick
• Coordination, posture, balance
• Strength, agility, endurance, flexibility
Overall health and well-being
• Reduces anxiety, stress
• Promotes healthy lifestyle choices
• increases positive sense of self (mental health)
Air Traffic Controller skills:
• Focus, attention
• Emotional regulation
• Plan ahead
• Follow rules
Important skills that enable a
child to learn
Types of Stress
• Transitions, new people
• Builds resilience & ability to cope
• Car accident, illness, natural disaster
• Mediated by supportive nurturing relationships
• Chronic, severe, long lasting
• Lack of supportive relationships
Impact of Toxic Stress
• Actually built into the structure of the brain
• Leads to challenges over the life span
– Difficult behaviours
– Inability to concentrate and learn
– Poor social relationships
– Health concerns such as heart disease,
respiratory problems, obesity, diabetes,
Hope: Our Plastic Brain
• Throughout life, a house can be added to,
strengthened, made more comfortable
• Our brains are ‘plastic’ and can also be
– More expensive, harder, less effective than
doing it right the first time
How Brains are Built
Active Play and Physical Literacy
We do it already!
• Repetition to mastery
Physical Activity for birth–4 yrs
• Infants (less than 1 year)
– physically active several times daily
– through interactive floor-based play
• Toddlers (1-2 yrs) & preschoolers (3-4 yrs)
– at least 180 minutes of physical activity at
any intensity spread throughout the day
Sedentary Behaviour for birth-4 yrs
• Minimize prolonged sitting or being restrained
(e.g., stroller, high chair) – no more than one hour
at a time
• For those under 2 years, screen time (e.g., TV,
computer, electronic games) is not
• For children 2–4 years, screen time should be
limited to under one hour per day; less is better.
We all need to help build our children’s brains
• Attend to all four developmental domains
• Provide a range of positive experiences
• Ensure all children have caring, positive,
• Create nurturing supportive environments
This is the only brain a child will ever have.
It has to last a lifetime!
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology
Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the early years 0-4
Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for children 5-11
Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for the early years 0-4
Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for children 5-11
A Hop, Skip and Jump: Enhancing Physical Literacy (2nd Ed). Available for purchase:
Active for Life
Active Start: the importance of physical activity in the first six years of life [6 videos]
Alberta Family Wellness Initiative
Canadian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines Handbook
Canadian Sport for Life – Parent Resource on Physical Literacy
Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University
Mount Royal University – Centre for Child Well-Being
Ontario Physical and Health Education Association
Professor, Department of Child & Youth
Director, Centre for Child Well-Being
Mount Royal University