Building Physical Literacy With Your Children’s Martial Arts Programme

The problem

We hear all the time that children are doing less sport and physical activity in schools. If they have a 60 minute slot for PE and the first 10 minutes is spent changing in to their PE gear and the last 10-15 minutes to get a shower and changed back, that leaves 35-40 minutes of activity time. Even if this was 35-40 minutes of the best Physical Education available, this on its own is not enough for a child to harness the benefits of Physical Literacy.

If children are spending less time playing outside with their friends, the only other opportunity to develop their skills and love for sport and physical activity is through recreation sports and martial arts clubs. The only way these clubs can contribute towards a solution is for them to integrate games and activities that build FUNdamental Movement Skills and Functional Movement Patterns in to their children’s programmes.

In a study of 2000 primary school children between the ages of 5 and 12 in Ireland, researchers at Dublin City University found that 1 in 4 had a poor running technique, less than 1 in 5 could throw a ball properly and half struggled to kick a ball. An article published by UK Coaching presented anecdotal evidence from a primary school PE teacher that over the last 3 decades the number of students able to climb to the top of the rope in PE seemed to be halving every ten years.

Research also shows that inactive children are more likely to miss school, perform worse academically and they are also twice as likely to be obese as adults. On average they earn less at work and take more time off sick. Not only does inactivity led to poorer outcomes for these obese adults, but their children are 5.8 times more likely to be inactive too. Stopping this problem perpetuating is an important step if we want to prevent health issues being passed from parent to child.

Although all ages can benefit from a change in their sedentary behaviors (sitting on their ass too much), creating an environment where children are intrinsically (participating because they want to) motivated to take part in physical activity is the simplest way to break the cycle. Obviously simple does not necessarily mean easy but the difficulty does not make It any less of a worthy goal.

What is Physical Literacy?

Although the concept of Physical Literacy has been around for decades (since around the 1930s), it was Dr. Margaret Whitehead that popularised the term in her paper ‘The Concept of Physical Literacy’ back in 2001. The established description of Physical Literacy is ‘the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities’. I know that is a bit of a mouth full and when asked, I tend to describe it as ‘The motivation and ability to move with confidence coupled with the understanding the benefits of being active for life.’

The main 4 components of Physical Literacy are knowledge, motivation, skills and competence.

Physically literate individuals understand the effect of being active for life has on their health and wellbeing.

Motivation refers to an individual’s enthusiasm to make physical activity a permanent part of their identity and life.

The ability to perform FUNdamental Movement Skills (FMS) and Function Movement Patterns (FMP) in a variety of different scenarios are crucial for developing physical literacy.

Being a competent mover is the first step in becoming a confident mover. People with confidence in their ability to move will try different sports and physical activities, thus increasing the chances of coming across physical activities they love.

Student showing the Fundamental Movement Skills for Physical Literacy in a childrens martial arts programme

The Physical Literacy Movement

Physical Literacy is big focus for many grass roots governing bodies and the number of organisations placing it at the heart of their policy has grown massively since the early 2000s. Physical Literacy has a big following in the UK with Sport England, UK Coaching and the Youth Sports Trust all including it as part of their guidance to their member groups. I would love to say that many of the martial arts organisations have also followed this trend but i am not entirely sure that most martial arts governing bodies have even heard of Physical Literacy, never mind started integrating the framework in their programmes.

Physical Education within the context of schools has also adopted this framework and is prevalent in guidance for schools all over the world. In the UK, it has been integrated in to the National Curriculum and is also referenced in guidance promoted by the Australian Sports Commission, Physical and Health Education Canada and SHAPE America, who serve over 200,000 health and physical education professionals across the United States.

You could ask why there is a sudden need to focus on Physical Literacy if it has been around for decades? The evidence for the need for intervention lies with the mounting number of studies that show that children are more inactive than ever before. Coupled with the high availability of high calorific processed food, this leaves our children in a venerable position possibly facing more challenging times as adults.

The outcome of physical literacy has been shown to reduce inactivity and help prevent the rising levels of obesity that we highlighted earlier in this article. Research also indicates that the children low on the physical literacy scale tend to drop out of sport and physical exercise sooner and go on to have poorer health outcomes. If we want children to develop a long term healthy relationship with sport and physical activity, we need to start applying the framework to grass roots activities, this includes martial arts clubs.

You can now hopefully see why we wanted to include the Physical Literacy framework at the center of Project MAPLE. Indeed, this is how the name MAPLE came about (Martial Arts Physical Literacy Engine). Adding ‘Engine’ was not only so the acronym spells a word, but also due to the concept of creating engine that helps your martial arts club become part of the solution to keeping children training for longer.

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