We spend a lot of time in libraryland talking about literacy. And there are an awful lot of literacy skills to learn and teach: pre-literacy skills, visual literacy, numeracy, cultural literacy, information and computer or digital literacy…whew! But one of the most overlooked and underappreciated literacy skills is the one we use almost constantly from the time we are born: kinetic literacy, also known as physical literacy.
What the heck is physical literacy?
Physical literacy is the development of fundamental movement skills that permit a person to move with confidence and control in a wide range of actions — such as throwing, skipping or balancing — and environments, like on snow, grass, water, in the air or on ice. And yes, this also applies to people with disabilities or exceptionalities. The movements your body makes may be either rhythmic (such as dancing or swimming laps) or spontaneous/reactionary (such as playing dodgeball or laughing at a joke). Most importantly, physical literacy gives us an awareness of our bodies in time and space; it allows us to “read” what is going on in any given environment and figure out how to respond. Just as learning how to count eventually leads to learning how to understand your power bill (we hope!), learning how to move your body in an appropriate way leads to physical activity for health, fun or competition.
Just think about this in your own life. If you can’t run, you probably won’t play soccer, basketball, volleyball, squash, badminton, football, rugby, tag or tennis very often. If you are embarrassed by the way you throw, you probably won’t play a game of catch with your nephew or join in a neighborhood game of baseball. If you don’t model these skills for the kids in your life, they might not want to play either. And this means you, and they, are missing out on a whole bunch of really fun ways to spend your time, make friends and celebrate your awesome body.
What if I don’t think sports are important?
This isn’t about being an uber-jock who lives in yoga pants, or turning everyone into Olympic athletes. That’s not realistic. But chew on this for a moment, skeptics: movement, especially rhythmic activity, creates neural connections across multiple pathways in the brain . It teaches children self-discipline and stress-management, which — as any children’s, teen or school librarian reading this blog will attest — is sorely lacking in many students that pass through our doors. According to the research done by Canadian Sport for Life, physical activity “enhances brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, emotional development, leadership and imagination … builds strong bones and muscles, improves flexibility, develops good posture, improves fitness, promotes a healthy body weight, reduces stress and improves sleep.” Sound too good to be true? Get moving, you may just become a convert. And did I just say “emotional development”? You bet. Emotion, as so eloquently pointed out by Dr. Carla Hannaford in her excellent book "Smart Moves : Why Learning is Not All in Your Head" (which I review on my website ), is energy in motion. Next time you laugh, or cry, or smile, or feel disgust, watch your body. It’s reacting to its environment. You are experiencing physical literacy. This self-awareness can go a long way toward empathy for others and self-acceptance.
So why should we be teaching kinetic literacy in public libraries? Don’t kids already have gym class at school? Don’t we have enough to do?
According to Canadian Sport for Life , developing physical literacy takes the combined efforts of parents/guardians, day-care providers, schools, libraries and other recreational programs, such as organized sports. “Physical education is critical to educating the whole child,” is the position statement  of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education . Children who are physically skilled enjoy healthy movement-based play, while those with fewer skills are often left out, have fewer opportunities, and eventually stop trying. As a parent of a toddler and third-grader, I can attest that it is sometimes hard to fit in physical activities on any given weekday between the drive to and from school/childcare, homework and the lure of TV and digital devices.
With a growing obesity rate among children and adults and the radical increase in sedentary lifestyles affecting the health and well-being of our community members, I believe it is essential for public libraries to offer some form of kinetic programming, if possible. I’m not saying you need to start a daily marathon run club or build a gym in the basement, and for some small-staffed libraries it might be extra challenging, but baby steps in the right direction can be helpful for everyone; patrons and staff, too! Remember, most physical activities are extremely low-cost to us as an institution, but the cost of putting a child in organized sports or activities can be a real barrier to a lot of parents . Bonus points for the public library’s image of super-accessible-one-stop-shop of awesome!
Where do I start? It’s easier than you think!
Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
• Look around your space. Are there a wide variety of materials children can kick or throw safely? Set up a beanbag toss in the corner, a mini-basketball hoop in the teen section, large plush blocks toddlers can stack and climb on and over.
• Turn up the music. Host random dance parties. Or schedule Zumba or music classes if it is in your budget. Crank up the tunes and let kids move their bodies. Make a train and zoom around the stacks. Pause the music and have kids “freeze” in space.
• Make body shapes, like animals or objects (rolling pins are a good one!). Do yoga or other stretching activities as part of storytime (more ideas in this blog post ).
• In small spaces, or during quiet time, play balancing games or try following lines on the carpet or floor tiles on your tiptoes.
• Keep out a small collection of board games that involve fine and gross motor skills, such as Cranium, Cariboo, Operation or Twister.
• Make imaginary rivers (or lava flows) and jump from one rock or bank to another.
• Take it outside and play on the library lawn, if you have one. Plant a community garden or just weed the flower bed. Teach them how to use a map or GPS and then send them on a (supervised) hunt around the block. Build snowmen. Decorate the sidewalk with chalk. Just go outside and touch things and ask questions.
• There are lots more resources online and in books. Participaction.com  is a great place to get started.
While you are plotting amazing ways to get your patrons moving more, also think about ways you can improve your own physical literacy skills. You'll be amazed at the confidence and excitment it can bring. It has taken me 33 years, but I can finally do a chin-up on the monkey bars. And my kids are totally impressed. What can you do that you couldn't do before? Share your stories in the comments below, I'd love to hear them!