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What is Physical Literacy? And Why Does it Matter?

Until I was about twelve, I was a city kid through and through. I went to a school wedged between skyscrapers and lived in an inner suburb with a front door opening straight onto the busiest street in my suburb.

By today’s standards, I had a surprising amount of freedom. My sister and I took the ferry to school every day alone - crossing Sydney Harbour on the choppy water with a fresh breeze every morning was a great way to wake up, but my favourite thing about it was being allowed to handle the journey each day on our own. My sense of place and ability for independent risk assessment were well developed, but what about the holy grail of childhood development – free outdoor play?

We walked the dogs and made quick trips to the shop with no parents in sight – but these trips had strict rules around safety and how long each would take, which my sister and I observed religiously.

My cousin’s farm, on the other hand, was another world entirely. There were four of us kids, my sister and me, and our two younger cousins. From my first memories there, the front door was always open, and if any of us were inside during daylight hours (usually my sister or me stuck in a book) my aunt would be invariably shocked and start wondering aloud if we were sick.

Walking out the door as an eight year old with no expectations by any adult of my presence again until dinner time was always unnerving when I first arrived for the holidays, but I’d soon get into the swing of things again.

My cousins, Bob and Maggie, showed us how free, outdoor play was done. They never seemed to see the point of ‘inside’, and we didn’t want to be bad sports. They had a marvelous collection of bicycles in the echoingly large shed a few hundred metres from the house. Their parents would visit the tip shop whenever the yen for a new bike came over one of them - and would return with curvaceous vintage bicycles boasting plush seats and front baskets big enough to carry a picnic.

To Bob and Maggie it was the most normal thing in the world to run out of the house at 7am, head to the shed for a bike, set out in any random direction on the enormous sheep station and keep going until they were hungry. Then my resourceful cousins would magically produce all manner of treats they’d had the foresight to stock their pockets with, which we’d enjoy while sitting on cool, lichen covered granite and surveying the endless views.

I first learned to ride a bike with my parents at a park in the city, an opportunity which opened up the world of adventure with Bob and Maggie. Although I had already learned to ride, it wasn’t until I was riding at the farm that I learned the magic of cycling. With no need for a parent to load the bikes on a car and drive through the city to a park we could ride in, cycling became an instant door to freedom and adventure.

I discovered my value of freedom on my cousins’ farm, and a great confidence in my abilities as I bounced downhill after my cousins, dodging rocks and boulders while shouting ‘no brakes, no brakes!’ at the top of our lungs.

It wasn’t just my ability to hurtle down a rocky hill on a rusty bike and avoid death or maiming – the realisation I could do things I had thought were impossible sprouted to life as I ricocheted down those hills. I was surer of myself with every astonished sheep I dodged.

As this physical literacy grew (my skills in movement, balance, reaction time and so much more) – my self confidence, my value of wide-open outdoor spaces, and my understanding of the rewards of perseverance all grew in tandem.

I had discovered a skill which gave me pride, and instant freedom every time I hopped on a bike. I didn’t wave goodbye to this wonderful side of myself when I left the farm at the end of the holidays. I took her and her confidence back to school with me, and then I took her on into my adult life. I am now lucky enough to cycle to and from work every day, and it’s never stopped being a thrill.

The first bike I ever really owned was a lovely old yellow step through bicycle I found on the side of the road while on holidays at our beach house when I was 10. The moment I saw it the joy of riding with my cousins on their farm was brought back to me and I insisted mum let me out of the car so I could wheel it on its flat tyres back to our little beach shack (it needed a bit of work before it would be welcome in the car boot).

That holiday became one of my best memories as I learned how to patch tyres and oil a chain to rescue Daisy the yellow bicycle. Looking back now, I’m quite impressed with my young self for figuring out these challenges. My lovely parents are more ideological and academic than practical, so I figured out how to repair the tyres, oil the chain and fight Daisy’s rust problem by simply reading the instructions on the back of the products in the local bike shop. Daisy and I spent the rest of the holidays exploring every path and road of the little beach town.

My pride in repairing my bike and particularly my love of the freedom it gave me meant I spent the whole holiday learning new skills, building my physical abilities, learning the geography of the area and building my confidence and skills in riding safely in a more built up area than my cousins’ farm.

I discovered that I could stop the birds on the corner from swooping me by wearing my helmet while putting food under their tree for them, I learned how to ride with one hand and wave to other cyclists I passed, I learned how to indicate with one arm stuck out (like a real cyclist!), and I discovered just how much smaller the town became when I was on my bike. I didn’t have to spend 25 minutes walking to the shop to get mum some milk, and I didn’t even have to find a carpark at the end of the journey (something I’ve come to appreciate much more as an adult). Daisy brought so many new areas and things within my reach, like the less crowded beach an extra five kilometres away from the town, and our favourite milk bar. I even learned to double dink with my sister.

Physical literacy starts with learning active skills, most effectively through free outdoor play, but it covers so much more than those basics and evolves to shape our lives and often lifelong interests and hobbies.

It matters because it is the foundation stone we use to grow as whole people. We walk before we read, and we jump and dance before we write. If we’ve learned confidence in ourselves in our first challenge, knowing we can pick ourselves up and brush off the dirt because we’ve done it a thousand times before in play (free, outside play) it’s a lot easier to believe we can do it again every time we meet a new challenge – and especially every time we fail. 

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