Physical literacy is a movement that's catching fire

Becoming literate in reading and math is crucial to every child's education, but Dr. Krystin Martens wants to make sure that Michigan school kids become physically literate as well.


As the Director of Physical Literacy at the Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF), Martens is leading a revision of the K-12 Exemplary Physical Education Curriculum (EPEC), a nationally recognized, award-winning physical education (PE) curriculum (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded MFF’s EPEC™ the Achievement in Prevention Research and Research Translation in Chronic Disease Award) developed by the MFF. EPEC™ is included in many grant programs including PEP grants, Building Healthy Communities (BHC) programs, and SNAP-Ed programs. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed). MFF offers competitive grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.


As a standalone physical activity (PA) curriculum, EPEC™ has been embraced by school districts nationwide. Additionally, in SNAP-Ed programming EPEC™ is the PE component of PE-Nut™, the Physical Education and Nutrition Education Working Together program, and as such, supports the PA component of the PE-Nut program which is implemented through SNAP-Ed in many schools across Michigan.

The revisions to EPEC™ will remain focused on skill development and continue to align with PE standards but will be enhanced to center around the concept of physical literacy. "Physical literacy is a movement that's catching fire," Martens says. "People and communities from all across the United States, and across the world, are buying into this movement and benefiting from it."


The concept is centered around three key words: competence, confidence, and motivation. A physically literate person has the physical competence and confidence to be motivated to be physically active over their lifetime. Challenge, adventure, self-expression, joy, and fun are also foundational tenets of physical literacy.


Martens underscores that PE is part of the core curriculum and is the driver of the physical literacy journey in the same way that math class is the driver of numeracy. Once skills are taught, they are practiced in many different settings outside of school. PE promotes numerous ways that kids can get active, whether it's at school, with their families, or in a recreational setting outside of school.

Through the reimagined EPEC™, educators will be able to guide students in learning to move in various ways, in a variety of settings, and in various circumstances. For instance, a child could learn a physical skill through a lesson and then gain an understanding of how to transfer that movement in other ways.


"Say they learn about balance and core muscular strength in class," Martens says. "We want kids to understand that they're able to transfer those skills to other activities that may not commonly be explored in a school setting, like skateboarding or surfing or snowboarding."


A move towards healthier communities


Restyling EPEC™ is a "definite step in the right direction" toward creating a physically literate culture in Michigan and across the country as a whole, says Dr. Tony Moreno. Moreno is a professor of kinesiology at Eastern Michigan University who has spoken extensively about the importance of physical literacy at conferences both in the United States and internationally. He's also an outside consultant for the MFF, working as a member of Martens' Physical Literacy Leaders Advisory Team.


"I'm a strong advocate of physical literacy for all the obvious benefits, some of which include lowered risks of developing chronic illness and disease," he says. "Part of my mission is to get more people to understand and embrace the importance of a physically literate culture."


He adds that working on the next incarnation of EPEC™ programming has been both professionally and personally rewarding.


"Through the schools we can help kids at the point where their journey starts. Physical literacy is a journey that is really cradle to grave," he says.

According to Moreno, researchers have determined that teaching children to be competent movers at a young age can have a lifelong impact. He explains that it gives them the confidence to learn other physical activities as they age.


"Maybe they join in a community recreation program or take up volleyball or swimming. Maybe they get the confidence and desire to try slow pitch, tai chi, or polka dancing somewhere down the line," Moreno says. "All of these are valuable extensions of movement opportunities that are available beyond the school setting."


To explain how important EPEC™ and physical literacy is, Moreno invites people to think of fundamental movement patterns and skills (such as throwing or catching a ball, hopping, leaping, swimming, jumping, skipping, climbing, tumbling, and dancing) as part of "the alphabet of movement."


"It's difficult to create a paragraph without creating sentences, and you can't create a sentence until you put together words. And you can't put together words unless you know the alphabet," he says.


Helping children uncover their full potential


It's Martens' belief that physical literacy is useful for all community members, young or old. And especially in a time where people are more hurried.


“As a society dependent on the convenience of vehicles, we've lost a lot of natural opportunities to explore and to teach kids about movement, because of a need to move quickly and get more done,” she says.

Furthermore, Martens adds that the worldview has shifted to concentrate on cognition. An emphasis on subjects like math and science often means PE is short-shrifted.


"I'm not downgrading math and science at all, but our brains are in our bodies and we don't have anything if we don't have our physical health," she says. "It's really important for people to be able to actualize their full potential and a healthy body is necessary for that."


Moreno is confident that the program's goal is attainable, especially when it's used to enhance other interventions in SNAP-Ed. Plus, through SNAP-Ed the reach expands because students receive information from different educators throughout the school day and then pass it on to their parents at home.


"It's been an advantage having both nutrition educators and physical educators overtly supporting the messages of the other," Moreno says. "SNAP-Ed allows for that repetitiveness that we know works to really promote education and behavior change. It's like having the support of a whole village helping to move us forward."


As Martens, Moreno, and the rest of the Physical Literacy Leaders Advisory Team continue work on revising EPEC™, they have a goal in sight.


"We want kids to learn that there are so many ways to move and that all of them are acceptable," Martens says. "We want kids to be healthy and happy, not as an outcome of a program, but as a way of being."

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