Dr. Dean Kriellaars and the physical literacy movement

If there’s someone in this country who knows physical literacy, it’s Dr. Dean Kriellaars. But the exercise physiologist doesn’t just know it – he advocates tirelessly for it because of the positive impact it can have on our society. “It’s as important as reading and writing skills, and the ability to work with numbers,” he said during a presentation at the 2013 Canadian Sport for Life National Summit. “Physical literacy is the fundamental basis for developing participation in society.”  

As Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, School of Medical Rehabilitation in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Manitoba, Dr. Dean works in rehabilitation and high-performance sport. He has travelled across Canada, volunteering his time to speak with health care professionals, coaches, trainers, and educators about physical literacy and healthy lifestyles, and has pioneered programs that have been adopted nationwide.

For well over a decade, Dr. Dean has worked extensively in the field of physical literacy. He sees firsthand the necessity of being active – in a healthy lifestyle sense, but also in terms of how we implement the notion of physical literacy. 

“I’m all about doing things now. I’m no longer interested in promotion. We’ve used promotion for 45 years in this country, and promotion alone is never going to cut it – we have to provide. We have to become a provision culture. If we’re not providing, we’re not doing the job,” he said at the Summit.

We’re facing an obesity and physical inactivity epidemic in this country. Roughly 65 percent of the Canadian population is overweight or obese, with more than 30 percent of children landing in those categories. Only seven percent of Canadian children reach the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise. The average child spends at least six hours a day in front of the screen. With obesity and overly sedentary lifestyle both linked to health risks such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis, it’s a wonder we’ve let ourselves get to this point.

As a country, we pride ourselves on being a leader in terms of literacy levels. Developing literate children is a massive part of school curriculum. But Dr. Dean questions how we can be so focused on literacy, and yet hardly acknowledge the need for physical literacy.

“Physical literacy is as essential as literacy. Just take ‘physical’ out and it’s the same as literacy: that’s how valued this must be,” he said during his presentation. “Obesity, physical inactivity and all the diseases downstream from that are running us over right now. And it’s a major problem. Physical literacy is our saviour. It’s a grand experiment. No developed country – zero – has recovered from this yet. None.”

But it’s one thing to recognize the issue; it’s an entirely different thing to act on it.

“We’re in a situation right now that this physical literacy movement, trying to engage the entire population – from a very sloth-like behaviour, very gluttonous society we live in – is going to be a very arduous task without surveillance showing that these initiatives work,” he said.

Dr. Dean has been a part of many initiatives directed at establishing physical literacy. He was one of the primary contributors to Physical and Health Education’s new “Passport for Life” physical literacy program. On top of that, his PLAY – Physical Literacy Assessment for Youth – Tools will soon be implemented across Canada through the Sport for Life movement. Though the phrase “physical literacy” has been in use for well over a decade, Dr. Dean has structured the language around it to mirror that used in the literacy and numeracy fields.

Movement vocabulary is the repertoire of movement skills someone has. The more movement vocabulary they have, the more opportunity they have to participate in things. Movement fluency is the ability to execute a component of movement vocabulary with expertise. Physical proficiency refers to the ability to select the right type of movement repertoire and sequence it correctly in a certain environment. Finally, physical literacy is ability to demonstrate multiple proficiencies in many environments.       

These are the terms Dr. Dean uses when testing for physical literacy in his lab. They are meant to measure components of the physical literacy movement, just as similar terms measure elements of literacy and numeracy. According to Dr. Dean, if these terms line up with the language used by people involved with literacy and numeracy, it will make it easier for those people to get on board.

Dr. Dean notes that organizations such as UNESCO, the UN and the World Health Organization place a lot of weight in literacy and numeracy. “They all believe that if you can do your ABCs, you can do your words and sentences, and you can create the Charter of Rights,” he said. “If you know numeracy, you can do 1,2,3s, you can do fractions and make equations, and then you can jump from a parachute way up in space.”

“Physical literacy is really no different,” he said. “You get some fundamental movements, you put them into sequences and tasks, you put it all together and you can to the padasha.”

During another talk at the Summit, Dr. Dean explained how a child with a more developed movement vocabulary could engage in more movements, leading to more participation in society.  By participating in society that child develops their social, emotional and physical wellbeing. “If you have all those pieces together, you have a healthy child,” he said. “Healthy children don’t get diseases and that’s a very important thing in this day and age – the prevention of lifelong disease, and giving a child the best capacity to work in a purposeful way in our society.”