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Physical Literacy – The Lifelong Journey

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This paper considers the premise that ‘each individual is on their own personal physical literacy journey’ (Whitehead. 2010: 42) and aims to put physical literacy into the context of lifelong participation in physical activity.
Autor(es):Taplin, Liz
Entidades(es):University of Plymouth
Congreso: congreso de la asociación internacional de escuelas superiores de educación física (AIESEP)
Úbeda A Coruña, 26-29 de Octubre de 2010
ISBN: 9788461499465
Palabras claves:physical literacy, motivation

Physical Literacy – The Lifelong Journey

This paper considers the premise that ‘each individual is on their own personal physical literacy journey’ (Whitehead. 2010: 42) and aims to put physical literacy into the context of lifelong participation in physical activity. Research methods focus on a narrative approach and in particular, the use of life-history, which in this instance, is used to chart a person’s physical literacy journey. The journey described here was recorded during face to face interview and is examined in an attempt to establish what the physical literacy journey looks like and feels like for that person. The paper aims to highlight the point that motivation, opportunity and breadth of experience are significant in developing physical literacy. It also aims to show that attitudes of parents, teachers, peers and family have a significant effect on the individual’s journey.

In the first part of this paper, the physical literacy story of one particular individual is told. In the second part of the paper, the story is used as data to identify and discuss particular aspects of the physical literacy journey. Whitehead with Murdoch (2006) suggest six life stages through which the physical literacy journey travels: birth – four years; childhood (five to eleven years); adolescence (eleven to eighteen years); early adulthood (eighteen to 30 years); adulthood (30 – 65 years); and older age (65 years +). The following story is told with these stages in mind. Jonathon* was born in 1922, into a middle class family. His earliest memories of engaging in physical activity are walking and playing. Jonathon recalls walking briskly to church on a Sunday as a three year old, a distance of two or three miles each way. He also remembers, with pride, his pedal car, ‘with a Rolls Royce bumper’ in which he says he ‘tore around the garden and down the drive.’

At the age of eight, Jonathon went to a private school, where traditional sports, such as football and cricket, were played. He participated because he had to, not because he was passionate about playing. He recalls drill at school, where he stood in line with other boys and was expected to perform military-like training exercises. He remembers his class being walked to the other end of town to swim in an outdoor pool, where it seems there was no teaching, just boys fooling around. He says, with a noticeable shudder, ‘The water was cold and I didn’t enjoy it very much.’ He tolerated the weekly dance class that this mother took him to; whilst opting out of the school boxing club because his parents ‘didn’t think boxing was the right sort of thing to do.’ At the age of eleven, Jonathon moved to a senior school, where traditional sport was the measure of one’s physical abilities. He didn’t excel at rugby, although being quite strong and reasonably well built meant he achieved a reasonable standard. Of cricket he says, ‘either I didn’t like cricket because I wasn’t all that good, or I wasn’t all that good because I didn’t like it.’

Jonathon lived on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, an area of outstanding natural beauty in the north of England. When he was fifteen, Jonathon joined the school’s Road Club, a group of boys who shared a love of cycling, and who spent time at the weekends and in the school holidays on lengthy rides on the Yorkshire moors. Rides of 20, 30, and even 40 miles were not unusual. Bike maintenance, route planning, and writing his expedition diary, were important aspects of his bike-riding hobby.

Jonathon’s teenage years were also notable for his involvement in hiking – planning routes, map reading, and walking considerable distances on the moors. At the age of eighteen, he completed the tough Three Peaks Challenge, a well-known 25 mile walk in the Yorkshire Dales. A feat he recalls with a smile and an obvious sense of satisfaction. During his years at university and the early part of his working life, Jonathon played rugby and it appears he enjoyed the physical contest and the social aspects. His involvement was fairly intermittent, but significant, in that the skills developed at school were continued outside and beyond the formal educational setting.

The story of Jonathon’s physical literacy journey during his adult life, were centred on the requirements of his day to day work. As a mining engineer, many hours were spent underground where he says, ‘It was physical work. You were very active, walking long distances, sometimes bent double.’ Even towards the end of his working life, he was still visiting work sites and he recalls, ‘The job involved a fair amount of activity. Walking through heavy mud, climbing ladders and walking around quarries.’ In his early 30s, Jonathon became the proud father of two children and he enthusiastically joined in family activities such as horse-riding and Sunday morning visits to the swimming baths. In his 50s, Jonathon joined his firm’s sports and social club, where he played tennis and attended weekly lunchtime swim sessions. Gardening and dog-walking were also on the agenda as he moved towards retirement.

Gardening, swimming and walking were the key activities for Jonathon during his 60s and 70s. At one stage, he and his wife were swimming twice a week before breakfast and then tending their quarter acre garden during the day. Towards the end of her life, Jonathon’s wife was quite frail and he became her main carer. Opportunities and the desire to be physically active were restricted to functional tasks such as walking to the shops, tending the garden and light housework. Her death, and the effects of Jonathon falling on an icy footpath, resulted in him experiencing a period of lethargy and inactivity. With a return to fitness and having had time to readjust his life, Jonathon’s interest in walking was rekindled; which brings us to the present day. Jonathon is now 88 years old and whilst he tires quite easily and reports he has ‘wobbly legs,’ he exercises regularly, timing his walk each time, trying to equal, or better, each performance, and says ‘I try to walk a mile. Ideally everyday. To keep fit and to keep my weight down.’

Jonathon’s physical literacy journey could be described as ‘ordinary’. During childhood and adolescence he was disinterested in, and not very good at, competitive sport. He indicates, at various stages of the interview, that he felt ‘awkward’ when participating in some physical activities. However, the story of his physical literacy journey is not ‘ordinary,’ on the contrary it is special, because it is unique and it is individual to him. (Whitehead. 2010). The uniqueness of Jonathon’s story enables us to examine his physical literacy journey with a view to identifying whether he can be described as being physically literate. We need to consider that he is someone who says he feels awkward in some movement scenarios; who has little interest or involvement in sport; and who has reached old age.

The story reflects many of elements that are expected in a physical literacy journey (Whitehead. 2010). We are able to identify these elements and we are able to highlight certain issues that have determined the progress and direction of the journey. In this particular story the role of significant others, motivation and individual endowment emerge as points for discussion. Significant others play an important role throughout Jonathon’s life, but particularly so during childhood and adolescence, when they helped to determine the early direction and impetus of his physical literacy journey. This is in accordance to observations made by Whitehead (2010).

Jonathon’s father was a keen walker, which may have played a part in Jonathon’s lifetime enjoyment of walking. His mother played social tennis and badminton, which perhaps explains his involvement in tennis, despite his lack of coordination. However, there is no recollection of his parents encouraging him to develop specific fundamental movement skills which might have given him a platform for greater involvement in physical activity at school. Jonathon’s parents were influential in his choice of physical activity, for example, dance classes rather than boxing classes.

By the time Jonathon went to senior school at the age of eleven, the direction of his physical literacy journey was seemingly mapped out. A disinterest in traditional team sports and parents who had strong views on what was acceptable, meant that he would be labelled as an academic, rather than a sportsman. He realised that he was not a student the games staff would go out of their way to encourage. School masters took little interest in him, seemingly because he showed little interest in their activities and probably also because he had limited potential in performance terms.

His friends at school, at university and in adulthood, appear to be have been extremely significant, in that he participated in activities such as rugby and tennis, not because he was particularly competent, but because of the positive effects of the peer group. His involvement in cycling and walking, led him into new friendships, where a shared love of the activity ensured lasting relationships were formed. Jonathon’s lack of interest in most sport at school appears to be linked to a negative sense of self, as he considers that he ‘wasn’t very good’ at sport. Observing Jonathon move during the interview and on other occasions, I would suggest that he displays some dyspraxic tendencies, a movement difficulty that would not have been recognised in the 1930s.

However, ‘physical literacy is a universal concept, applicable to everyone,’ (Whitehead. 2010:12) and whilst Jonathon was not aware of this movement difficulty, it is clear he appreciated he was better equipped to undertake individual activities; thus he mainly chose walking and cycling over team sport, recognising that these were more suited to his particular endowment. Whitehead (2010:30) states that motivation is a ‘fundamental attribute in becoming physically literate.’ Consider how Jonathon walked long distances as a child and explored the moors on his bicycle as an adolescent. Consider the physical nature of his working day; and the involvement in physical activity with his friends and children, during his adulthood.

Consider how he is determined to walk regularly and sets personal challenges in older age. These are strong indicators that Jonathon has always been motivated to participate in physical activity. At the age of four, Jonathon played in his pedal car, completing circuits of his garden as fast as he could. At the age of 88, Jonathon attempts to walk a mile every day, seeking to improve his performance. Jonathan has shown knowledge and understanding of the importance of keeping active and he has continued to be active, in different ways, throughout his life. Jonathon’s story indicates he is physically literate and that he has, so far, navigated a successful and satisfying physical literacy journey.


Taplin, L. (2010) Jonathon H’s Physical Literacy Journey. Interview. October 2010.

Whitehead, M. (2010) Physical Literacy throughout the Lifecourse. Routledge.

Whitehead, M. with Murdoch, E. (2006) Physical Literacy and Physical Education: Conceptual Mapping. Physical Education Matters. Summer 2006


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