Maine Schools in Focus: Teaching physical literacy to address statewide health

Physical Literacy
Christopher Nightingale, Assistant Professor of Athletic Training and Physical Education

Over 70 percent of adolescents and 46 percent of adults in Maine fail to meet recommended guidelines for weekly physical activity, and almost one-third of adults are clinically obese (, 2017). Maine has the 26th highest obesity rate in the United States and has seen a near 20 percent increase in the number of obese adults since 1990. What can be done to improve these numbers and cut down on the health care related concerns associated with them? The University of Maine’s Teaching/Coaching Physical Education Program (in accordance with the Society of Health and Physical Education Professionals) thinks they have a strategy to develop an appreciation for exercise through the concept of Physical Literacy.

Physical literacy is defined as “the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities across multiple environments that benefit healthy development of the whole person” (, 2017). The term “physical literacy” first came into the lexicon in 1993, but has become internationally prevalent as a teaching philosophy in the last 10 years or so ( The University of Maine’s Teaching/Coaching Program Curriculum is centered around physical literacy and designed to expose students to a wide array of teaching styles and strategies that encourage all public school children to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become physically literate.

Historically, physical education in the state of Maine has been organized around team sports. Many people can remember being divided into teams that are selected by teacher-appointed captains and forced to play sports that they did not really enjoy. While some athletic students enjoyed the experience and dominated game play (often being cheered on by the teacher), many students gave minimal effort and tried to blend into the scenery without breaking a sweat. Other students actively sought excuses to not participate at all. Grades were issued based on attendance, if you showed up you received credit (regardless of the effort expended). UMaine graduates in the last few years are taking a different approach to teaching physical education.

UMaine students learn how to teach motor skills and different strategies to explore movement to develop physical literacy. The Methods of Teaching Elementary Physical Education class is organized around skill themes and movement concepts, utilizing teaching ideas to develop skills in fundamental activities and develop individual lesson plans that appeal to elementary-aged children. UMaine students get the opportunity to apply their lessons locally at Old Town Elementary School (OTES). Working with local students gives UMaine students the opportunity to develop their practice in a real-world environment. Kate Robichaud, Physical Education Teacher at OTES described the collaboration: “This practical experience allows the UMaine students to get into the field, early in their education, to find out if teaching physical education is truly their desired path.”

In Methods of Teaching Secondary Physical Education, students take what they learned in the elementary course and apply it to different curriculum models beyond the traditional team sports model many remember from high school. Students also get to implement their multi-lesson units at local schools like Bangor High School where they teach with the aims of helping secondary school students develop physical literacy. Jeff Fahey, Director of Health and Physical Education at Bangor High School stated, “For several years, the Bangor High School PE / Health Department has hosted UMaine PE students. The students have an opportunity to have a practical teaching experience in physical education.  Students are required to construct both unit and lesson plans, as well as implement these sequential lessons into sophomore PE classes over a period of six to eight classes.  Requirements also include a written assessment and a student evaluation by our pupils.  At the conclusion of each lesson, supervising teachers discuss areas of strength and possible improvement.  The program has proven to be beneficial to both UMaine students and BHS students.”

The Maine Department of Education (MDOE) has developed Physical Education Standards with the goal of providing students with the skills and knowledge to support participation in a wide array of physical activities that contribute to an active lifestyle. The MDOE indicates that participation in physical education on a regular basis provides the benefits of physical activity and its contribution to a healthy lifestyle. The ways that schools implement these standards, however, are under complete local authority. Few schools in Maine provide regular physical activity as a part of the K-12 curriculum. Many Maine schools see physical education as ancillary to the school mission, which is tragic. Will the physical literacy approach benefit students and improve health outcomes for the people of Maine?

With the wide range of outdoor activities available in Maine, our state can be the vanguard for providing many activity options for people. Outcomes research indicates that by teaching from the physical literacy perspective, more students embrace physical activity as an important part of their lives. UMaine students learn how to help school children feel confident in physical activity settings, gain knowledge necessary to perform a wide array of activities, and develop the fundamental skills to move confidently and with control in a wide range of situations. They learn how to promote an atmosphere of inclusivity that encourages all students (not just the athletic ones) to be physically active.

Looking ahead, we pose several questions addressing the concerns of obesity and limited physical activity in Maine for consideration and broader discussion:

  1. How do individual school districts address the needs of students to become physically literate?
  2. How can state agencies, organizations, and universities change the perceptions of physical education and prioritize its importance?
  3. Would other organizing concepts (other than physical literacy) be more effective in increasing physical activity in Maine schools?

If these questions can be addressed in a manner that efficiently prioritizes resource allocation and promotes fitness for all, the state of Maine potentially reduces health care expenses in the future and makes Maine a better place for all to live in.


Sources: – retrieved 11.29.17 – retrieved 12.6.17   -retrieved 2.1.18 – retrieved 2.1.18


Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.