A Brief Introduction to Physical Literacy

by Dr Liz Durden-Myers, PE Scholar

The concept of physical literacy was formally launched in 2001, in Margaret Whitehead’s initial paper entitled, The Concept of Physical Literacy (2001). Since then, there has been a number of developments and refinements to the definition and concept more broadly. 

Today, the most recognised and widely accepted definition is by the International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA) who describe physical literacy as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life”.


(IPLA, 2020)

Whitehead’s initial motivation
Whitehead’s initial motivation to develop the concept of physical literacy was focused around four main principles. Firstly, her interest in the philosophical writings of existentialism and phenomenology gave significant support for the centrality of embodiment in human existence, and thus elevated the argument towards embodiment as fundamental to human life.

Secondly, despite the overwhelming evidence including the philosophical writings mentioned above regarding the importance of embodiment for human existence, movement development was considered secondary to language, numeracy and social development within early childhood.

Thirdly, physical literacy could be used to address the growing drift away from physical activity as part of everyday lifestyle, particularly in developed countries. Physical literacy could also serve as the means to elevate the value that physical activity has in enriching life, throughout the life course. 

Finally, there was a growing concern about the general direction that physical education was taking in many developed countries, including the UK, which, judged by Whitehead, placed too much emphasis on high-level performance and elitism within physical education (Whitehead, 2010).

Underpinning principles for practice
In 2022, the IPLA recommended the following seven principles in informing practice: 


(IPLA, 2020)

Each of these seven principles should be evident in curriculum design, pedagogy and assessment and embrace the holistic nature of the concept, be inclusive and personalised and encourage exploration of physical activity in a range of meaningful opportunities and environments.

Whitehead has, since 2001, campaigned to raise the awareness of the concept and develop the theoretical and philosophical underpinning of physical literacy. Since the formal introduction of the contemporary notion of physical literacy in 2001, the concept has developed considerably and as a result has gained global attention in relation to its potential to revolutionise how physical activity and physical education are perceived and approached. This rapid development does not appear to be slowing, in fact momentum continues to grow across the world. 

Recent policies including the National Plan for Sport Health and Wellbeing recognise physical literacy as a significant concept that will contribute to the health, wellbeing and activity levels of the population, both within and beyond education. What this means is that physical literacy is here to stay and will be a part of the future direction for physical education. All educators and practitioners are encouraged to learn more about this important concept that will help shape how we approach and support physical activity engagement through physical education in the future. 

More information
For more information or to find out more about physical literacy, I recommend the following websites: 

•    The International Physical Literacy Association
•    PE Scholar

Alternatively, please get in touch via Twitter @LizDurdenMyers and I can signpost you to further resources and/or I am happy to discuss your specific questions or contexts needs. 


You can also listen to Dr Durden-Myers in conversation with ASCL Primary Specialist Tiffnie Harris in this Primary Podcast (May 2022). 

Posted: 25/05/2022 09:34:48