Physical Literacy, the Long Term Investment We Make in Our Kids

Kids are expensive these days, aren’t they? Toys, games, school supplies, activities, classes, technology and fashion. We want to give our children the best of things, but replacing the $100 graphing calculator three times because they can’t find the last one or buying them 3 pairs of Uggs so they’ll have colors for each outfit seems a bit extravagant. Still, if you can be generous, why not?

I think, not. And not because it’s wrong to gift them, but because it’s blinding us to seeing where we really need to invest our resources. We’re pouring into their bank accounts, but wouldn’t it be better to invest our funds, little by little, in what will pay off over time? Call me stingy, but for my money, the best investment is movement. That is, pure, unadulterated, joyful play. Running, jumping, skipping, hopping, riding on your shoulders, climbing over the tree stump, hurdling the fence, it’s all good.jumping dunes

Not just good “for them,” because it builds strong bones and muscles, but good because it builds “physical literacy.” It introduces a new learning pathway, separate but equal to reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. And this pathway, initiated young, with healthy discovery, new environments and different challenges, builds neural connections that last a whole lifetime. Now that’s an investment.

Somehow, athletics has gotten to be the realm only of the super-capable. Sports teams are only for the gifted and talented athletes, not for the rest of us. Balderdash! You’ve got a body, so you’re an athlete. Your kid has a body, thus so are they. The sooner they get to know that, the better, and the more they’ll respect themselves, and the physical natures of others, for it.

This disregard for physical play when kids are young – be it because there are few safe places to play or their time seems better spent learning their ABC’s – is, unfortunately, at the root of much that is happening on our youth playing fields today.

IMG_2354Give credit to Mom and/or Dad who believe that exercise is good for kids and sports are fun so they sign them up thinking they’ll find a lot of both. Unfortunately, kids who haven’t developed physical literacy find movement difficult. It is not smooth or coordinated because it hasn’t become natural. Now it has to be learned. And today’s “sports-learning” is often not focused on movement for movement sake. Now, it has an objective: move the ball, bounce the ball, hit the ball, pass the ball, or maybe even, do whatever you have to do to get the ball to Jenny so she can score. Instantly, things have become completely confounding, because motion – which should have been their first language – is now a foreign language.

But kids are resilient. Even in the face of bodies that refuse to do what they want them to, they overcome. They teach themselves how to dribble, pass and shoot. All is well, right?

Too often, it goes wrong. It is very hard to make up for lost time, and in fact, it may be impossible. In our best efforts to draw out that physical nature through organized sports play, the “let the game teach” approach is given free reign to do the teaching, and it does so in an imbalanced way:

  • Right-handers over-rely on their right side and lefties their left.
  • Girls play upright and straight-legged putting knees at risk.
  • Tackles are clumsy and dangerous when uncontrolled.
  • Under the pressure, everyone defaults to bad habits.
  • Doing it over and over doesn’t make it perfect, just permanent.

Ten thousand hours is more likely to bring exhaustion than success, and when form breaks down, bodies give out, and injury is ready to step in. We may not see that the game is imbalancing our kids’ development, until pain and injury stops them in their tracks. Who can blame them for dropping out to do things that are more fun for them? Like engage with screens that don’t make them feel uncoordinated, stupid or uncomfortable.

If we really want health for our kids, we need to make the long term investment. We need to ignite physical literacy in our youngest, reinforce it as it grows and support it through all its stages. Caution: when we put down our deposits, we have no guarantee of “return on investment.”

  • We don’t get them started in kindergarten so that they’ll make the high school team.
  • We don’t tutor them in the great thinkers at age four so that they’ll get into Harvard.
  • We don’t force them to copy the great painters so that they’ll paint a great masterpiece.

Our investment is a gift. We start them young, so they’ll have a whole lifetime of compounding interest. We can’t know how they’ll spend those dividends. Perhaps they’ll never even touch the principal and they’ll gift it to their children and their children’s children. That’s not for us to decide, or even suppose, because when we do for them “so that” something will happen, we take control from them that we shouldn’t have.

Let’s help them move, but not any faster than they’re ready to go. Maturity takes time and interest takes a while to compound.

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