Around the Institute

Promoting Physical Literacy as a Way to Get People Moving

May 1, 2013  • Robin Schepper

Robin Schepper is a senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former executive director of the Let’s Move Initiative of the White House. She can be reached at

Why do fewer than 20 percent of American adolescents meet federal guidelines for regular physical activity? How do we get more kids active? How do we prevent those children who have sufficient access to sports programs from dropping out of sports as they get older? How do we make sure kids have the tools to become active adults? Do we need federal or state policies to get more Americans moving?

These were some of the issues we addressed at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in Aspen, CO, April 9-12. A key initiative of the Sports & Society Program launched at the summit, Project Play convenes leaders from sports, health, philanthropy, media, and industry to start a national conversation about how to give stakeholders—from parents to policymakers—the tools to build “Sport for All, Play for Life” communities. Too little physical activity is a key contributor to increasing rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases that increasingly are taxing our health care systems, as well as public and private sector budgets. The group coalesced around the urgent need to identify strategies that get Americans moving through sports, whether play is organized or unstructured.

As the representative from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), I was pleased to see that the concept of physical literacy, which BPC’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative highlighted in our June 2012 report, “Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens America’s Future,” was a key component of the program and enthusiastically embraced by the participants.

Physical literacy is a concept that originated in England and has been embraced by the Canadian government and the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, among others. The idea is that all individuals, starting in childhood, should learn the basic physical skills required to be active on the ground, in the air, in the water, on the snow, and on the ice. These skills allow all individuals to participate in physical activity from childhood through adulthood. Physical literacy also embraces all levels of athletic ability, not just elite athletes. Our current funding, training, and coaching culture focuses on selecting the best athletes and investing disproportionately in them, rather than creating pathways for all children to be physically active throughout life, regardless of whether they play or even excel at a competitive sport. In sum, physical literacy prepares all individuals to engage in and enjoy physical activity throughout their life course—long after the days of PE and school sports.

Triangle Vs. Rectangle

With tight education budgets and inconsistent state requirements for PE and recess, we believe the concept of physical literacy provides a fresh way to think about movement. Every child needs to learn his ABC’s, addition, multiplication and division. Similarly, we believe that every child also needs to learn how to be physically literate to be successful and healthy throughout life. Instead of relegating physical activity to an extracurricular activity, we believe that it needs to be co-curricular. Physical literacy needs to be learned by every American student, just like math, reading and writing as part of the preparation necessary to go on to healthy, productive lives. We are not going to solve our current health crisis if Americans don’t know how to move their bodies and enjoy doing so. Before, during and after school time provide important opportunities to reinforce the concept and practice of physical literacy. 

The Aspen Institute conference generated many ideas to both promote and implement physical literacy. In late 2014, after a series of roundtables that will dive deep on the key challenges and opportunities within our disjointed sports system, the Sports & Society Project Play program will recommend a platform for stakeholders to work together to develop more healthy children and communities through sports. In the meantime, I would like to offer a few ideas that build off of BPC’s Lots to Lose report and focus on opportunities to promote and implement physical literacy, outside of federal legislation:

In schools

1. Ask the 46 governors/states who adopted the Common Core standards for language arts and math to create a Common Core health curriculum that includes physical literacy. Once adopted, these Common Core standards are integrated into curriculum and measured on tests. 

2. Work with education leaders to better communicate research findings that show that children who engage in the CDC-recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day have greater academic success. Help educators and education policymakers understand that physical literacy is just as important as math and language arts.

Out of School time

1. Reinforce Physical Literacy skills in out-of-school programming. Some before- and after-school programs do a great job with promoting physical activity, such as the YMCA with its commitment to establish a minimum of expected physical activity for children of different ages enrolled in its programs. To promote physical literacy and create more momentum, we encourage all major out-of-school providers to also adopt, promote and teach physical literacy in their programs.

At a national level

1. Ask the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the National Governing Bodies of sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Federation of State High School Associations to adopt and promote physical literacy as a concept.

2. Ask the President’s Council on Sport, Fitness and Nutrition to promote physical literacy.

There are many more recommendations to get kids active, increase participation in sports and change the current youth sports environment. But at the BPC, we believe the concept of physical literacy provides a foundation for more policymakers, education, health and sports leaders to unite under a common goal to get America moving again. Our future depends on it.