Over the past few years, the concept of physical literacy has grown in popularity around the world. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel bad – but before you ask, it’s nothing to do with running and reading books at the same time!
According to the International Physical Literacy Association, “Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding of value and taking responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.”
To put it into plain English, the concept simply means viewing all aspects of our health holistically, rather than as separate ideas.
The philosophy is gaining ground in Canada. This year, the BC Ministry of Health provided funding of $50,000 for 17 community ventures across B.C. to learn and be mentored about physical literacy and how it positively impacts our health and well-being.
But the reality is, even though experts now know that incorporating movement, nutrition and mindfulness together means children thrive, it isn’t always easy – or possible – for most mainstream and public schools to implement such ideas.
However, a progressive and modern school like Pear Tree Elementary, a private school in Kitsilano, has physical literacy at the heart of its learning approach.
Pear Tree was founded in 2011 and opened its doors as an elementary school in 2016.
Paul Romani, co-founder and director of the school says that the response and feedback to the school’s innovative learning approach have been extremely positive.
He says that there are many reasons why the school has been so well-received by students, parents and staff alike, but he attributes the school’s success to its small, nurturing community: only three classes, with a maximum of 15 students (45 students from K- 7 in total), as well as the fact that all the academic team have at least a master’s degree in education. He says those two things, combined with the school’s unique learning approach, go a long way to ensure that the students get the most out of their educational journey.
“Physical literacy is not just about us teaching them something; it’s about the students learning for themselves – not just memorizing facts, but actually practicing what they’re learning about.”
Romani says that Pear Tree Elementary is a progressive school that approaches learning and thriving in a very holistic way. This means that good food, lots of exercise, and attention to mindfulness are cornerstones of the Pear Tree philosophy.
In fact, when it comes to kids’ nutrition, Pear Tree Elementary takes it very seriously, indeed.
For example, instead of children bringing a bagged lunch to school, all of the students participate in a mandatory healthy hot lunch program.
“We know what they’re eating, we know that it’s healthy for their body, and we know they’re eating three times a day rather than one large lunch. Therefore, the kids are not only getting the food they need to physically develop during their growth years, but they also have the right food in their body to actually focus when they’re studying, and don’t get tired or emotional.”
According to Romani, the hot lunch program is an integral part of the day at Pear Tree. Meals are very inclusive and very much centered around positive peer pressure, where everyone’s eating the same thing. This reinforces to the kids that eating healthily is normal.
He says that in the regular school system, positive peer pressure doesn’t always exist. “If you’re the kid who takes a packed lunch to school and it’s healthy, then you’re the kid that’s the odd one out. And if everyone else is eating fast food, that, in turn, makes you want to eat what they’re eating, and that’s negative peer pressure.”
The menu at Pear Tree comprises of a hot lunch, as well as morning and afternoon snacks – all cooked in-house from scratch. Pear Tree’s chef changes the menu monthly, according to seasonal ingredients; and, while it includes variety, it still gives the kids enough opportunity to try the same things multiple times so that they can see if they truly like or dislike something.
“The majority of our food is vegetarian because when kids are young, they don’t need to be eating enormous amounts of protein or meat; they need to be eating a lot of vegetables, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates, which contain the nutrition they need.”
Gaby Weisbom, a holistic nutritionist from Vancouver, says that good nutrition plays an enormous role in aiding kids to reach their full potential during the school day.
“As adults, I’m sure we can all relate to how nutrition plays a big role in our energy levels; and so, of course, it’s going to be the same for kids. Good nutrition is so important to our energy levels and overall wellness. It helps us stay focused, motivated and energized. On the flip side, if we eat the wrong foods, it can bring our energy levels down, leaving us feeling lazy, lethargic and overly emotional or irrational.”
Weisbom says that even if your kids don’t attend a school like Pear Tree Elementary, where a mandatory healthy lunch program is implemented, there are still things that you can do to make sure your family eats well. “I think it’s a misconception that ‘easy meals’ or snacks mean unhealthy, processed foods. You can have super-healthy nutritious meals just by eating whole foods. It’s just wrapping your head around the idea of what foods are fast, nutritious and easy all at the same time.”
She says that simple tweaks, such as planning meals ahead of time, or prepping fruits and veggies in advance to make sure that they are readily available, is a good place to start.
She also says that getting kids involved in preparing meals and getting them to read labels helps them feel empowered – a philosophy that Pear Tree Elementary also firmly believes in.
In addition to the healthy hot lunch program, the kids at the school also learn to cook. Romani says cooking and taking care of your body are not only important life skills, but are also a great way to teach kids maths (things like fractions, weights, and measurements in recipes), as well as science and art.
As well as a strong emphasis on good nutrition, the staff at Pear Tree Elementary also pride themselves on the second component of the physical literacy philosophy, exercise. “At Pear Tree, we do physical education every day, for one hour, five days a week, which is two and a half times more than most other schools do. We really do believe that kids have to have physical exercise every day in order for them to de-stress their body, to get enough sleep at night, to be able to concentrate when they’re in class, and to develop healthy self-esteem – so that they feel comfortable in their own skin, and don’t feel self-conscious about their weight or their physical shape.”
As with all the programming at Pear Tree, the kids learn not just the ‘how’ of their physical exercise program, but the ‘why’ – or put another way, they learn mindfully.
Alex Miller and Cally Bailey, the founders of Grow Your Roots – a company that offers a tested, curriculum-based mindful movement course for elementary school students and teachers across B.C., say that more than ever, kids need a consistent mindfulness program to navigate the busy world that we live in.
“In society as a whole, we are seeing more children getting depressed and anxious due to the high amount of stimulants in today’s world. We didn’t used to have the stimulants that we have now. Even TV, for example, years ago, the shows were a little bit slower; while now, the shows are so fast paced that it can cause addictive personalities. Children are becoming addicted to stimulants, instead of being able to just sit in awareness,” said Bailey.
Miller and Bailey said that physical exercise and mindfulness are the key to overall well-being – not just for kids, but for all of us.
“Physical activity is good for so many things: it gets the internal organs working, it helps us to use them properly, it keeps them healthy; but, if you’re just being stagnant, it’s not just bad for your body, it’s bad for your brain. When we’re young and we’re kids, we love movement. We don’t even think about it as physical activity; we think about it as fun, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. It stops stress hormones from being produced, and it releases endorphins, the happy hormones. Those are the ones we need to focus on bringing out in children. If we don’t have those hormones being released, that’s how we get depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders,” said Miller.
Overall, physical literacy is a great umbrella term for combining all the attributes that we need to help us raise healthy and happy children. Instead of just focusing on what our kids need, perhaps it’s time to start leading by example: eat well, move, and be mindful. How hard can that be?
Pear Tree Elementary is a progressive K-7 school located in Kitsilano. Children learn by doing. That’s why Pear Tree students learn through theme and project-based learning, two of the most advanced methods of education. These approaches put learning into context, making education enjoyable, memorable, and meaningful.
Taking a whole-child approach means Pear Tree Elementary nurtures academic, socio-emotional, and physical development. Integral to this are Pear Tree’s teachers, who all have Masters of Education degrees, and its healthy hot lunch and daily physical education programs.