Understanding the power of physical literacy

newspaperFor several years we have articulated in this Column the power of sport as an important pillar of national development. For one reason or another it seems a very difficult pill to swallow but we keep at it if only because successive generations of Vincentians can benefit if we begin to take the business of sport seriously.

The failure of those in authority here to understand the sport and its relevance to national development is evident everywhere yet for some reason it appears that they have now come to the conclusion that the construction of some facilities, willy-nilly, by itself will transform anything. But this is nothing strange. There are many countries around the world that boast significant wealth yet have failed to facilitate genuine development, there being excess, opulence, among the few on the one hand and crass poverty in abundance on the other. The wealth is not sufficiently distributed to enhance the overall quality of life of the majority of the population.

In a similar vein we can claim to be building and improving facilities for sport yet because we have no idea of precisely what it takes to develop sport we are missing the point and failing.

Physical literacy

The problem for our governmental authorities is a gross deficiency in their understanding of the fundamentals in respect of where to begin.

The answer lies in first grasping the concept of physical literacy.

Physical literacy is as fundamental to the human condition as is literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy (dealing with numbers). It is about understanding movement and the importance of coordinated movement on a consistent basis and its impact on our general wellbeing – physically, emotionally and otherwise.

Development is about people and their overall wellbeing. The health of an individual is critical to his/her personal development.

By and large our successive governments have been reactive. There is nothing progressive about what they do.

It was a reaction to the explosion of non communicable diseases (NCD) and chronic non communicable diseases (CNCD) in the Caribbean by 2007 that compelled the heads of governments to act. It was our Prime Minister that declared at the meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad in the latter part of 2007, that the way to combat the blight of NCDs and CNCDs was a Wellness Revolution. Caricom, for its part, immediately declared an annual Caribbean Wellness Day.

Essentially though, there has been no progress in St Vincent and the Grenadines beyond that. We can boast of having been the ones to call for a Wellness Revolution but after eight years we have not had any systematic strategy that has impacted the blight.

Unless we start at the very beginning, unless we address the matter of engaging in consistent advocacy for physical literacy in St Vincent and the Grenadines we are not likely to effect any change in regard to the spread of NCDs and CNCDs.

There must be a national campaign that gets the fundamentals of physical literacy into our homes, pre-schools, elementary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions and in every social and community-based organisation in the country.

Every man, woman and child must be imbued with an understanding of physical literacy and its importance to their individual and collective wellbeing.

Physical education

It has always been a fact of life that education does not sell. While we insist that everyone in society should gain an education, the media have never found education sufficiently interesting to place it on the front burner. It does not generate profit.

Not surprisingly therefore the media in St Vincent and the Grenadines have not found it in their interest to promote physical literacy.

Our educators, while expected to know better, have spent most of their time promoting the academic subjects, at times, to the detriment of all else.

It is our educators who have committed the false dictum that involvement in physical activity results in a loss of instructional time. Perhaps this explains why so many of our educators fall prey to NCDs and CNCDs, essentially life style diseases.

We are in the digital age where information about almost everything is at our fingertips yet as a nation we have failed to grasp the reality that physical literacy must begin in the home where the mother is pregnant, through to the birth of the child and his/her formative years.

Parents today have become overly cautious about new-borns climbing and doing the very things that they did as children because of their lack of understanding of the importance of physical activity to early childhood development. It is at this very early stage that the fundamentals of coordinated movement are to be taught. Instead, many parents stifle the initial drive towards physical activity.

Lacking an understanding of physical literacy and its value to the human condition, education authorities have not yet conceptualised the introduction of physical education at the pre school level in Vincentian society.

We continue to put the cart before the horse.

It was in response to the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) that we introduced physical education as an examinable subject here. Without any sort of foundation we introduced this important subject as an examinable subject. This is a form of madness and does not follow the norm in respect of how new subjects are introduced into the education matrix of a country. Yet we did it. We not only did it, we patted ourselves on the back for having done it.

So we now boast several students who have passed physical education but what does it mean to them? For most students it enables them to claim having passed an additional subject. They do not know what to do with it.

We are not surprised at the small numbers taking on physical education as an exam subject each year.

Indeed, at many schools, we have the unfortunate spectacle of students being shunted toward physical education because we do not see them academically inclined and therefore we are helping them to do something that would at least allow them a subject pass at the CXC level. This may well have to do with the fact that many of our educators do not know anything about physical literacy and physical education as much as they know nothing about sport beyond seeing people run, jump and throw.

If our educators took the time they would know that physical education introduces the student to an understanding of the components of the human body and how they function for the wellbeing of the individual. They would understand that physical education is the first step to understanding what it means to lead a healthy life.

They would understand the link between a health body and a vibrant intellect.

They would understand the link between good physical activity and enhanced attention span as well as productivity.

Unfortunately, as it now stands, many of our educators and leaders in the field of education miss the point and lump physical education and sport with woodwork and food and nutrition as subjects for the less academically inclined.

Perhaps it is that too many of our educators bury their heads in their respective fields of endeavour and only when committed to physical activity by a medical practitioner for their survival do they get a sense of the importance of physical activity to human development.

There must be a pathway for physical education in our education system that begins at the pre-school and goes through the entire system.

It is therefore important that our education authorities review their approach and start where they should if they are serious of having the population understand the value of physical literacy to their individual and collective wellbeing.

We are late but we must start now.

A new beginning

It is imperative that St Vincent and the Grenadines adopts a new approach to human development that places physical literacy at the same level of importance as literacy and numeracy.

Given that the Prime Minister was the one who led the battle cry at Caricom for a Wellness Revolution across the Caribbean to combat NCDs and CNCDs, he must now lead the transformative approach here at home.

Just as Fidel Castro, in a move to positively effect a change of attitude to combating cancer publicly ended his longstanding affinity to and use of the cigar by public pronouncement and commitment, so too, our Prime Minister must take a stance on physical literacy and physical activity given their importance to a healthy lifestyle. He has an opportunity here to lead by example.

Some years ago, in support of the Wellness Revolution, he advocated a change toward aerated drinks in St Vincent and the Grenadines. This lasted only a few weeks at best. Is he afraid of taking a stance that could save our Vincentian populace from the blight of ever-increasing NCDs and CNCDs?

The Ministers of Education, of Sport, of Health, of Community and Youth Development must take centre-stage and become leaders in the social transformation of a fundamental aspect of Vincentian life – physical literacy and physical activity.

The critical arms of government relative to the quality of life of every Vincentian must buy into the new thrust toward healthy living.

We often watch in awe how the Scandinavian countries head the list of nations that value life in a very special way. We are amazed by their insistence on a culture of physical literacy and physical activity and how it impacts their longevity, productivity and commitment to peace and harmony. Their statistics on the quality of life of the citizenry are staggering. Unfortunately we do not look in their direction for good example. Instead we allow our families to feed off the excess of the US-led global village of bad eating habits and a general lifestyle that leaves us all tending toward couch potato status.

We do need to have a major paradigm shift away from a culture that promotes obesity, diabetes, cardiac illnesses and increased amputations.

If we are serious about development we must be committed to making and keeping our people healthy.