Physical Education, Physical Literacy and 21st Century Skills


While various entities indicate a variety of 21st century skills, all content areas should allow students an opportunity to grow and be competent in;

  • Empathy

  • Collaboration Skills

  • Creativity

  • Risk Taking

  • Critical Thinking

  • Communication

  • Civic Responsibility

  • Technology

Curriculum and pedagogy should be carried out with these skills in mind. As students run the course of their educational experience these things should obviously increase in complexity. These skills are also naturally developed in a physical education setting with a teacher who is also aware of the importance and has access to the proper resources including but not limited to curriculum and professional development. So many however, (including the major decision makers in education) don’t understand the difference between, old “roll out the ball PE” and the “New PE” or 21st century PE where Physical Literacy is the goal. So here are the definitions:

Physical Activity - exercise, sports, games, fitness, etc. Physical activity should occur throughout a lifespan. A combination of strength and cardiovascular activity is great for health and disease prevention. Cardiovascular activity is optimal when at moderate to vigorous intensities for at least 30-60 minutes more days than not. There are specific recommendations for different ages but this is just a brief summary.

Physical Education- a subject in school where students are taught a curriculum developed to support students in growing as physically literate people.

Physical Literacy as defined by the National Standards developed by SHAPE.

Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.

  • Physically literate individuals consistently develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply, and analyze different forms of movement.

  • They are able to demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently, creatively and strategically across a wide range of health-related physical activities.

  • These skills enable individuals to make healthy, active choices that are both beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and their environment.

Research has shown that one of the biggest health problems of the 21st century is not obesity, but rather physical inactivity. Physical inactivity increases stress and anxiety, disease such as various forms of cancer and diabetes, and inflammation.

Very old research studies show that physical education leads to increases in academic performance or no change in academic performance. In other words, physical activity received during physical education classes does not hinder academic achievement in other content areas. Additional positive associations between physical activity and academic performance have been determined. The brain is more active when we have more oxygen. While that is simply said, it’s irrefutable.

There are also clear positive associations between physical activity and mental resiliency. Youth who engage in physical activity demonstrate lower rates of anxiety and depression. As well, as physical activity levels of among youth increase depression levels decrease (Kirkcaldy, Shephard and Siefen 2002; Sallis, Prochaska and Taylor 2000). Even if academic achievement and physical health weren’t enhanced due to physical activity – We still need it! Any subject that supports students’ in feeling empowered and happier about life - through participation in physical activity - belongs in ALL schools! And anything that addresses the obesity/inactivity issues in this country has a strong enough case to stand alone as a necessity outside of its implication for academics.

Physical inactivity is a major health CRISIS. This is one of the main health concerns in the 21st century. Physical activity at moderate to vigorous intensities exists in quality physical education programs developed with physical literacy as their foundation.

Here, they are able to:

  • Empathize-Understand the feelings of others and oneself

  • Collaborate (with a partner, small group, large group and in a variety of settings)

  • Take Risks (learn new skills, skill combinations, etc. that can directly impact their health in a positive way)

  • Think Creatively and Critically (in planning, participating, and evaluating practice and performance)

  • Communicate (Effectively using verbal and non-verbal communication skills in authentic physically active settings)

  • Demonstrate Civic Responsibility (for their health, for supporting the community in healthy living initiatives, service learning options, etc.)

Physical education is an ideal location to foster 21st century learning - while also helping to counter the obscene amount of physical inactivity that exists in this 21st century society. In doing so, we’ll have students not only prepared for the global community they are being raised in, they will be prepared to live life to its fullest.


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