Origins of Physical Literacy


The concept of physical literacy was formally launched in 2001, in Whitehead’s (2001) initial paper entitled, ‘The Concept of Physical Literacy’. Although, Whitehead recognised in this paper that the term physical literacy was something that was already being used within the education profession, and more specifically, within physical education, for some time previous to this paper being published, it had at this point, received little attention (Whitehead, 2001). Whitehead (2001) also describes how the term physical literacy was being used previous to this paper as an alternative to the idea of being physically educated.

Whitehead’s Initial Motivation

Whitehead’s initial motivation to develop the concept of physical literacy was focussed around four main principles. Firstly, her interest in the philosophical writings of existentialism and phenomenology gave significant support for the centrality of embodiment in human existence, and thus elevated the argument towards embodiment as fundamental to human life (Whitehead, 2010).

Secondly, despite the overwhelming evidence including the philosophical writings mentioned above regarding the importance of embodiment for human existence, movement development was considered secondary to language, numeracy and social development within early childhood (Whitehead, 2010).

Thirdly, physical literacy could be used to address the growing drift away from physical activity as part of everyday lifestyle, particularly in developed countries. Physical literacy could also serve as the means to elevate the value that physical activity has in enriching life, throughout the life course (Whitehead, 2010). Finally, there was a growing concern about the general direction that physical education was taking in many developed countries, including the UK, which judged by Whitehead placed too much emphasis on high-level performance and elitism within physical education (Whitehead, 2010).


Whitehead, has, since 2001, campaigned to raise the awareness of the concept and develop the theoretical and philosophical underpinning of physical literacy (Whitehead, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007a, 2007b, 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014). Since the formal introduction of the contemporary notion of physical literacy in 2001, the concept has developed considerably and as a result has gained global attention in relation to its potential to revolutionise how physical activity and physical education are perceived and approached. This rapid development does not appear to be slowing in fact momentum continues to grow across the world.


  • Whitehead, M. E. (2001a) The Concept of Physical Literacy. British Journal of Teaching Physical Education.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2005) The Concept of Physical Literacy and the development of a sense of self. IAPESGW
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2006) Physical Literacy and Physical Education: Conceptual Mapping. Physical Education Matters 1, (1), 6-9.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2007a) Physical Literacy: Philosophical considerations in relation to the development of self, universality and propositional knowledge. Sport Ethics and Philosophy, 1:3, pp. 281-298.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2007b) Physical Literacy as the goal of Physical Education with particular reference to girls and young women. Unpublished paper given at CAHPERD Conference May 2007.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2009) Physical Literacy as a Human Intelligence and as a Human Capability. IAPESGW Stellenbosch 2009.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (Eds) (2010) Physical Literacy: Throughout the Lifecourse. London: Routledge.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2013) What is physical literacy and how does it impact on physical education? In S. Capel and M. Whitehead (eds). Debates in physical education, 1st ed. New York: Routledge, p.46.
  • Whitehead, M. E. (2014) What is the philosophical underpinning of physical literacy? MESH MAP. Accessed Online: 4th January 2016.

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