Inclusive Pathways to Physical Literacy

A number of local organizations including the City of Calgary and P.L.A.Y. Calgary have come together to encourage physical literacy, attempting to identify and solve accessibility issues for people with disabilities in Calgary and area.  Just like reading and writing, physical literacy is more than physical education. It directly relates to one’s ability to make choices and have the confidence to engage in a broad range of physical activities over the course of one’s life.  You need the building blocks of the alphabet before you learn to read and write, counting before you can do mathematics, knowledge and practice of musical notes before you can compose the latest pop song or symphony.  Physical literacy needs to be held in the same regard as literacy and numeracy.

Equal Footing

What is Physical Literacy?

“Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.” (Whitehead, 2016,

The original definition was presented as part of an International Sport Congress in Melbourne, Australia in 1993.  Since that time, there have been many calls for governments and education systems to address the obesity epidemic by encouraging physical activity, communicating the options and the consequences of not being physically active. Many of us would agree it is a challenge for the able-bodied to stay motivated even when the choices are many and accessibility is not an issue. For those with disabilities however, the choices are fewer, the adaptations may be non-existent and the community awareness of about its lack may be missing.

Building Activity for Life

There is an awareness in the Olympic and Paralympic sport community that to train elite athletes, one must start from the beginning by engaging youth (0-6 years) with a positive first experience and an Active Start.  Unstructured active play emphasizing the ABCs or Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed are important to learning the fundamental movement patterns necessary to become skilled at any future sport.  That positive experience and the child’s enjoyment of it are necessary to build confidence and the desire to continue to be active.

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FUNdamentals and Beyond

When children reach the age of 6 to around age 9, they can continue to develop fundamental movements and the ABCs and participate in multiple sport environments while keeping the competition minimal and the emphasis on fun.  This is called the FUNdamentals stage and is a precursor to the formal training stage that an aspiring athlete might pursue.  Physical literacy focuses on Active Start and FUNdamentals as the backbone for lifelong physical activity.

The societal trend toward less physical activity has led to more obesity plus rising incidences of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  “LTAD aims to mitigate these trends by promoting lifelong engagement in physical activity and sport….LTAD is for all Canadians, not just elite athletes and the young. It is cradle to grave in scope, and it is also inclusive of athletes with disabilities” (

Physical Literacy

Challenges Real or Imagined

For people with disabilities, simple fundamental activities like running, jumping and throwing may not be available or only available with adaptation.  If they don’t have a positive first experience, or they are excluded from typical play situations, how likely are they to keep trying? When a person’s confidence is undermined, they may withdraw or the parent makes the decision to not put the child in a situation where they can’t be successful. Unfortunately, if others assume the child is incapable they may come to believe it themselves.

Positive images of people with disabilities participating in sports or going for a hike are few and far between. Think about it.  How many travel ads, TV shows, sports reports, etc. include a person with a disability? We may see a lot when the Paralympic Games are played every couple of years, but what about between? Those are elite athletes, but what about the “average Joe” who isn’t trying to set a record, but just wants to enjoy an intramural game of volleyball with buddies?

Adaptive equipment in the form of specialized wheelchairs or prosthetics are available, but often prohibitively expensive.  Other persons may just require a small creative adaptation to be able to participate, but no one has taken the time to figure it out. Of course, many disabilities are not visible and may affect the person’s ability to socialize and interact with peers, but if encouraged and the situation is prepared for them, they can still have a successful experience.

Part of a successful experience is not just the physical aspect, but also the social.  If a person is shunned in a community setting because of their appearance or behaviour, it is unlikely that they will continue to pursue an interest for the time it would take to learn a new skill.  A parent told me it was for that very reason that they took their children out of community soccer.  Even if the child doesn’t recognize the cold stares, the parents certainly do.  A supportive friend can make all the difference in any child’s desire to continue an activity and flourish in the community.

What are we doing to change this?

Inclusive Pathways to Physical Literacy has come about because many in our community see the need and the value of making physical literacy as much a part of the life of a person with disability as it is in the typically-abled.  And it isn’t just because they’re thoughtful and caring – it is a fundamental human right.  Two UN conventions touch on this. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) states that, “persons have the right to live in dignity, with equal rights and opportunities”.   The other was the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) which includes the “right to play”. Article 23 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically talks about children with disabilities in stating that the “… disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community.”

It is from this world view, and a willingness to tackle change in society for all of its citizens that organizations like Between Friends are coming together to identify gaps, combine resources and advocate for change.  It isn’t always about having a lot more money but more about using creativity and ingenuity while building awareness of what is available.

Some of the initiatives that are happening currently:

  • The 2016 Community Recreation and Ability Lifestyle Expo happened on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at the Markin MacPhail Centre. It coincided with the 2016 Western Canadian Sledge Hockey Tournament from March 25-27. All events took place at WinSport.  For more details visit Facebook at expo2016calgary and calgarysledgehockey.
  • Between Friends is building physical literacy skill development into its recreation programs while retaining the fun and social inclusion that we are known for.
  • City of Calgary is making its facilities as accessible as possible for all types of disabilities. In winter of 2016, the City of Calgary reserved spaces in its recreation programs for people with disabilities who have FSCD (Family Support for Children with Disabilities) funding.
  • Special needs children: 5 ways to help their physical literacy flourish
  • New tools have been developed to assess and evaluate children’s physical literacy and can be accessed by many organizations, including schools that do not have a phys-ed specialist or a formal physical education program. Physical Literacy Assessment for Youth (PLAY) Tools and Physical Literacy Observation Tool (PLOT) help providers to assess their programs and make appropriate changes.
  • Awareness building with Jooay, an app that connects children and youth with disabilities to local recreation opportunities. It is currently available on the Itunes App Store and coming to Google Play.
  • Adding adaptive training into current curriculums and in particular by organizations that are doing this work like Canadian Paralympic Committee, Special Olympics and Be Fit For Life Move & Play.
  • Most local recreation centres include early childhood physical development programs that are offered to the general public like Learn-to-Skate, gymnastics, Active Start, First Moves. Check out

Physical Literacy is a journey that can start at any time and at any age and is intended to give people the skills throughout their lives no matter what their current health and abilities might be. There is always a way to make it better.

By Cindy Neufeld & Lindsey Nielsen

Thanks to Dr. David Legg of Mount Royal University for sharing his presentation and links.


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