Physical literacy includes learning not to be perfect

Learning new skills can be a lifelong pursuit. But whether you’re a kid or an adult, it isn’t easy to perfect a jump shot or a karate kata.

And while specialized, competitive sports are a popular choice of extra-curricular activity for kids these days, a growing body of research suggests that perfection and competition are not what kids should be striving for.

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“Really what kids need to be exposed to particularly from (ages) zero-six, but arguably even later than that, is just a really broad gross motor-development curriculum that exposes them to all sports and all sport elements in a very non-competitive environment,” explains Jennifer Hood, a certified coach and owner of Jump Gymnastics in North Vancouver.

This different approach involves building physical literacy, and Hood, a former elementary school teacher, says the idea behind it is similar to basic literacy and numeracy skills kids learn at school.

Physical literacy seeks to build a child’s confidence in moving in a variety of sports environments, and also to give that child the tools and the skills needed to explore playing a whole variety of different sports.

The current sport system in Canada is built on picking a sport at a young age and pursuing that, says Hood, noting the original thinking was the more competitive a child was at an early age the more competitive he or she would be at a later age.

“But actually research has proven exactly the opposite of that,” says Hood.

She explains that the core elements of many sports share similarities, so if kids are exposed to a variety of those elements at a young age, they will develop transferable skills.

“Once they have this really broad base then they can explore something that might truly interest them, and then later around puberty years is the ideal time to introduce kids to competitive sports,” says Hood. “Research has found that kids that come out of a system like this that’s a really broad-spectrum introduction to sports end up becoming more competitive on a world and international stage and generally more active for the rest of their lives.”

The first step to teaching physical literacy is for parents and kids to embrace the concept of effort and not final results, explains Hood. She says parents should praise a child’s effort rather than telling kids they are good at something or they are smart.

“There’s a really great research study released that talks about when you tell kids they’re smart they actually end up performing poorer on tests because they feel that it’s not something in their control. They’re either good at it or they’re not, and there’s nothing they can do about that.”

She says she talks a lot to parents about letting go of preconceived notions of what they or their kids may or may not be good at, and understanding that they don’t know where their journey of learning is going to take them. Parents don’t know when a child’s motor skills will come together or when the child will embrace sports in a way that their parents didn’t because they’re growing up in a different time and a different system than their parents did, she notes.

It’s important to start with a blank slate and an open mind about the process of learning.

“On top of that, let’s start talking about effort and celebrating effort as opposed to results,” says Hood, adding parents and kids should stop caring about trying to be perfect at something, especially when it comes to movement and sport.

“There really isn’t a perfect way to move your body,” says Hood. “There are efficient ways to do it, there are esthetically pleasing ways to do. There are motor-coordinated ways to do it, but there isn’t a perfect way to do it.”

Because of her interest in physical literacy, Hood’s gymnastics program is non-competitive.  

“We just want to expose kids to as much movement as we can at an early age, but also balance that out with building self-esteem and confidence in doing it so that they can take that with them,” she notes.

If learning the basic skills of ball sports, for example, Hood would encourage a child to get comfortable handling a ball without necessarily worrying about how good they are at it.

“Bounce it a billion times, in a billion ways and with different balls and different sizes and different shapes. And we’re going to encourage the effort not actually how perfect they’re doing it,” she says. “(We’re) getting kids in the mindset of we’re not trying to achieve a specific goal, we’re trying to go through a journey of learning and we’re going to value effort and time spent on a task as opposed to what actually comes out of it at the end.”

Competitive sports bring good things to the table, but there’s a time and a place for it, says Hood, adding when kids specialize in one sport too early, there is often a danger that the child will grow to dislike the sport or get injured and then they won’t have any transferable skills.

“I think sustained effort in one direction is always better than achieving an enormous goal you’ve set for yourself. There’s something rewarding about that too, but goals don’t always get achieved, so let’s start looking at what that journey looks like,” says Hood.

The following are Hood’s practical tips for learning a new skill.

With any new skill, the first step is to break it down into simple, manageable chunks or movements. For example, when teaching a child to read it makes more sense to start with the alphabet rather than with Shakespeare. When learning a new sport, the same principle applies.

Break it down and figure out what the steps are to learn the new skill or sport, then practise each of those steps individually until you’ve mastered them separately.

The next step is to combine those mastered pieces into the full skill, piecing them together and then practising that full skill until it’s mastered.

Another helpful step for some people is to seek out examples of someone else who does the skill or sport well and use them as a reference. This is called modeling and can be in the form of watching videos, reading books, going to the park and watching someone on the monkey bars if you’ve never tried them before, or asking your older sister to show you how to do a lay-up. Hood explains that people learn in different ways. Some people learn by the tactile experience of doing it, and others learn by watching and observing it.

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