Guest Post | Physical Literacy: An American Origin.

November 14, 2017
Written by Tia Kiez and Dr. Dean Kriellaars, University of Manitoba

The use of the term physical literacy has steadily grown since the early 1990’s, due to the promotional and philosophical work of Dr. Margaret Whitehead (M. Whitehead, 2001). Consistent with her philosophical roots, she has a pluralistic view of the term, with a definition/concept that has evolved over time, starting in 1990 (M. E. Whitehead, 1990). Despite the increasing references to physical literacy from the early 1990’s and on, this concept has in fact been mentioned much prior; as early as 1884. Although, the original reference is often attributed to George Morrison in 1969, there are references to physical literacy that date back as early as 1884, where an American in the Army Corp of Engineers utilized the term in colorful description of the physicality of an indigenous culture during a feast.

There was considerable utilization of the term, physical literacy, starting in 1927, and continuing through the 1930’s, largely by American educators, in the era of modernization through mechanization. In fact, it appears that the term was an American invention. Below are selected quotations from 1927 to 1941 illustrating that its use, implied definition, and need for implementation are essentially the same as those discussed today.

“The value of physical education (or physical literacy) has proven its worth to the extent that recognition, and often requirement, is exacted for graduation from grammar and high schools. Virginia is making progress in this direction as physical education has been made a credit requirement for graduation in a number of our counties. Many of the leading colleges and universities now accept one unit of credit in physical and health education within the required college entrance credits” (Smithey, University of Virginia, & Virginia Committee for Research in Secondary Education, 1927).

“We must prepare for physical literacy as well as for mental literacy. A physically fit America becomes more necessary with modern mechanical inventions. If education is preparation for life, then we must give to every American boy and girl that physical preparedness essential to earning a…”(Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania Department of Common Schools, & Pennsylvania State Education Association, 1930).

James Edward Rogers, the director of the National Physical Education Service in New York, NY, stated, “The public schools are as much responsible for physical literacy as for mental literacy. Physical illiteracy is on an increase in this country. In the future it will be increasingly more difficult for boys and girls to live physically well and to keep fit. The schools therefore must provide…” (National Education Association of the United States, American Normal School Association, National Association of School Superintendents, National Teachers’ Association, & Central College Association, 1932; New York State Teachers Association, 1933).

“We are so inclined to regard education as primarily concerned with knowledge in a narrow sense that we tend to concentrate on what I may call intellectual literacy. There is however, a physical literacy — of the body, the hand, the eye and the ear; and, elusive though it be, a literacy of the spirit. These literacies, like intellectual literacy, do not result from a narrow concentration on them. Games, climbing, walking, dancing and manual occupations such as carpentry, building and so on, all conduce to physical literacy: that is to a disciplined command over the body.” (British Institute of Adult Education & National Institute of Adult Education, 1937).

In 1938, Dr. L. P. Jacks was reported to describe, “…physical literacy, which is something very different from beef and brawn, must be the first characteristic of our ideal type of citizen. Physical health is in itself not, however, sufficient. Physical health must be linked up…” (Cunningham, Radford, & Australian Council for Educational Research, 1938).

“If the purpose of education is to train the child for living, he should be trained for complete living. The whole child should be trained. His special talents and interests, his integrity and originality, his health and emotions are all a part of his life which should be developed. Physical literacy is just as important as mental literacy, and both are essential parts of the educational program. Yet without our resources there would be no need for either physical or mental literacy” (Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, 1941).

Statements proposed in the 1930’s are still highly relevant today, displaying the overall consistency of the term’s meaning persisting to this date. Too bad it didn’t catch on back in the thirties like literacy did!

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