If there’s someone in this country who knows physical literacy, it’s Dr. Dean Kriellaars. The exercise physiologist advocates tirelessly for it because of the positive impact it can have on our society. “Learning to move is as important as reading and writing skills, and the ability to work with numbers,” he says.

Physical literacy refers to the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life. Kriellaars puts it simply: “Physical literacy is the foundation for active and meaningful participation in society.”

As Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, College of Rehabilitation Sciences in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Kriellaars works in rehabilitation and high performance sport. He trains athletes of all ability levels, educates health care professionals, coaches, trainers, and educators about physical literacy and healthy lifestyles, and has pioneered programs that have been adopted internationally.

In 2013, Kriellaars partnered with the Sport for Life Society to create the Physical Literacy Assessment for Youth (PLAY) Tools. Directed at individuals aged seven and up, the PLAY Tools determine gaps in physical literacy development and provide calls-to-action to help improve these areas. These tools, which are valid and reliable, have since been used for more than 25,000 assessments in Canada, USA and Europe.

“Physical literacy is a gateway to an active lifestyle from childhood through to adulthood,” says Kriellaars. “These tools will help us understand the factors that can be modified to improve the overall activity level of Canadians, leading to healthier, disease-free lives. If we don’t measure it, it isn’t important. This will help to place physical literacy on an equal footing with literacy and numeracy.”

We’re facing an obesity and physical inactivity epidemic. 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 an integral part of our schools, but it takes a community in harmony with the schools to raise a literate child. Similarly, Kriellaars identifies that we need a cultural shift, as with literacy, where the entire community raises up to help create quality physical literacy experiences for all ages and in all sectors of society including schools, at home, in recreation and sport. Literacy has provided us with the knowledge to understand the need to be active, but, as Kriellaars says, “knowing is not doing”. All Canadians need to be equipped with the ability, confidence and desire to move; then, given the opportunity, they can choose to engage in what makes them happy and healthier.

Kriellaars has been a part of many initiatives directed at establishing physical literacy. This year he helped the Aspen Institute’s Project Play create its game plan for physical literacy – a global scan of physical literacy movements in 10 countries – and he supported the development of Canada’s Physical Literacy Consensus Statement.

Kriellaars 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 – or a lovely birthday card,” he says. “If you know numeracy, you can do 1,2,3s, you can do fractions and make equations, and go to engineering school to create the science to allow someone to jump to earth from space.”

“Physical literacy is really no different – you develop competence in basic movement skills, you can then sequence the skills together to accomplish physical tasks, then you can participate in any activity you choose.”

Kriellaars explains how a child with a diverse movement vocabulary could engage in more activities, 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 says. “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.”