Stacy Irvine leads some children in some outdoor skill building activities.

Physical literacy at Totum Life Science

For the past five years, children’s physical literacy has been steadily gaining attention in all quarters of sport, education, and health. Totum Life Science in Toronto has been one of its earliest supporters.

Dr. Stacy Irvine, one of the co-founders of Totum, says their goal has always been to help people become as healthy as they can possibly be. For her, this starts with the battle against youth inactivity and rising rates of obesity. Accordingly, she and her colleagues at Totum have developed a physical literacy program dedicated to helping children become the best movers they can be.

Since 2009, the Totum Youth Training Program has helped children to develop fundamental movement skills to allow them to participate with confidence in a wide variety of physical activity and sports. In addition to writing about physical activity and fitness for publications such as Today’s Parent and Chatelaine, Dr. Irvine has even demonstrated physical literacy with children during a television appearance on CityTV.

We recently spoke with Dr. Irvine to learn more about the programs that are offered at Totum.

AFL: What inspired you to start offering physical literacy training at Totum?

Our approach has always been about quality of life and quality of movement. I was introduced to Istvan Balyi’s writing when I was working with golf a few years ago, and the concept of physical literacy kept coming up.

I looked at the principles, and right away I thought, “Every child should have these movement principles taught to them, and every child should be reaching these levels and have the opportunity to reach these levels.” And that’s kind of where our youth program started.

AFL: What kinds of programming does Totum offer?

Every year, we deliver a series of 10-week programs where we take kids of all age groups, where we’ve developed a system to work on their fundamental movement skills. We have programs that run onsite at Totum, and we also have programs in schools. Then we also run a summer camp every year that is a full-day program.

During the winter, we offer one-hour sessions where we use the same principles from the summer camps. We try to introduce the kids to all the things that we do in the summer camps and give them as wide an exposure as possible. We also work on educating a lot, including topics such as nutrition.

AFL: What does a typical day in the summer program look like?

The summer camp is a ton of fun. In the morning, we start in a huge gymnasium, and we focus on training the fundamental movement skills. At lunch, we go outside to a park where we have lunch, and the kids have free play for about an hour and half. They’re allowed to do whatever they want. We have balls and things like that there if they want them, but they can also make up things as they go. So that’s fun.

Afterwards, we do yoga and hip hop. And then at the end, we have a regroup where we have started doing short meditation with the kids. There is a lot of education where we teach them how to appreciate their bodies and their ability to move.

Obviously the goal is that they don’t ever stop. Even as adults, we want them to realize, “I need to move today. I’m feeling more anxiety, or I’m feeling tired, or mentally I’m not as aware as I could be. If I go exercise, I will feel better.”

AFL: How are your programs received by parents?

I have had parents write to me, especially about the girls, saying, “I was really worried about my daughter. She didn’t seem to like sports and she did the program, and now she’s gung-ho to sign up for basketball this year.” Or volleyball, or whatever. We’ve had those kinds of reactions.

We’ve also had parents tell us that their kids love the educational component as well. These are the parents whose kids are already generally athletic, but they write to us and they say, “Thank you so much for teaching my son about protein,” or about his muscles, or about recovery, or about visualization.  “That is the part that he really loved.”

We’ve had kids come in whose motor skills were virtually non-existent, and the parents write me and tell me, “I can’t believe it. It’s like looking at a different person moving!”

AFL: Do you do anything to assess the skills of the kids in your program?

Our first day is a kind of testing day. We do some fun games and introduce ourselves, and then we pick certain movement skills and we actually measure and write down a score. It might be like a plank, it might be pushups, it might involve running, or some type of movement screen.

Then we train for the series, and we re-test those things that we tested the first day. Each child goes home with a sheet of paper that shows their improvement on that particular skill. They tend to really like that, and the parents really like it too. Then we can educate them on why we’re doing this and what we’re looking for.

AFL: When you say a “movement screen”, what do you mean?

We often do testing using the movement screens developed by Gray Cook, who works more or less in the world of rehabilitation and professional sports. He developed a program called Functional Movement Screens, or FMS for short. It describes movement patterns and ways to mark movement patterns. So there are ways to look at a squat, for example, and sort of give it a score on a 1 to 4 scale.

We want to teach the kids the proper technique for squatting, proper technique for landing a jump, and those types of things. So we often use some of those screens in our initial testing.

AFL: It sounds like your programs are targeting a wide range of behaviours and attitudes around physical activity.

I grew up as an athlete, and it was automatic for me. You could hand me a ball, and I was happy.  But I think as a coach, you have to understand that not every kid will be like that. You have to make the activity enjoyable first.

Totum is located in downtown Toronto. The kids here have access to a million different distractions, so I know that if I’m being too narrow in my approach, that child will pick something else to do.

The challenge is to make an activity as fun as Angry Birds. [Laughs]. Some kids just love to move. But with the ones who prefer Angry Birds, I have to find ways to make them prefer movement or enjoy movement.

That’s a challenge for sure. As a coach and an athlete, I already live and breathe all of these skills. The challenge is putting all of the skills together to make them really fun so that we’re having a great time while we’re doing physical activity.

AFL: What would you suggest to parents who are considering a physical literacy program for their kids, or a general approach to encouraging physical literacy?

I think you need to find people who are trained in physical literacy. I think it does require work on the parent’s behalf to ask around, to find some good coaches who are trained in physical literacy, and then find places where your children love to go.

We love the multisport the approach. So if you don’t have coaches specifically trained in physical literacy, then I think your next best thing is to have your children enrolled in a wide variety of sports. So maybe it’s swimming, maybe it’s gymnastics, maybe it’s soccer. And the key is to do those things seasonally so the child gets exposed to many different types of activity. As far as registered sports, that’s your goal.

And then obviously you want to get them out as many times as you can to play by themselves or play with friends. Let them have a good time organizing things themselves and having fun being active.

I’m always very happy to hear when children are really enjoying whatever it is that they are doing. Because I think if they enjoy it, they are going to keep doing it and that is half the battle.

AFL: What would you suggest to other organizations that may be interested in starting physical literacy programs?

It is work to build the program and to get the children involved in the program. But I think if you are involved in physical activity, and you care about physical activity and health, you really have to dedicate part of what you do to get children active and keep them active. Because we don’t have enough active children out there. I think that all of the people who work in this industry really need to make a concerted effort to work together and try to get more children active.

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