The Future is Female: Fostering a Lifelong Love of Movement

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    Recently, Lanni Marchant visited Central Toronto Academy (see video) to talk to students about sexism and double standards in sports, which often deter female students from participating in organized sports or being physically active in general. To continue this discussion, we talked to two educators and physical education experts about creating a safe and inclusive space where young women can develop a lifelong habit of being physically active. 

    In 2015, Ontario adopted its updated Health & Physical Education (HP&E) Curriculum, revamping the previous curriculum which had been in place since the 1990s. You definitely heard about it. Well, you definitely heard about the 10% or so that was devoted to sexual education.

    The heavy focus on the sexual education component in media and public discussion is interesting considering there is a case to be made that physical inactivity might just be the defining public health issue of our time. As illustrated by Scientific American, there is hardly a part of our body or aspect of our health that isn’t negatively affected by being physically inactive.

    Currently, only 8% of Canadian girls meet public health guidelines for physical activity. Between grades 8 and 12, participation in organized sports drops 10% for girls and only 10% of girls choose to pursue PE once it becomes an elective. (More statistics available from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity)

    If we are truly concerned with the health of young women, it’s necessary to consider the urgency of these numbers and ask how educators can instil a passion for physical activity early on.

    Many Paths to Healthy Living

    Tali Douglas is the Head of Health & Physical Education at Central Toronto Academy. A graduate of York University (Specialized Honours in Kinesiology & Health Sciences), she’s also worked as a sports scientist, personal trainer, and fitness program coordinator prior to entering the teaching profession.

    Douglas says that in her experience, she’s seen female students shy away from PE due to negative experiences stemming from sexual harassment, feeling intimidated by team sports, or because they simply don’t understand the value of physical activity. There have also been cases in co-ed classes, Douglas says, of “…a male majority not being inclusive toward the females in the class,” as well as a “…lack of interest from some female students which negatively impacts the group dynamic and perpetuates the idea that PE is not a valuable subject.”

    Heather Gardner is a provincial health and physical education curriculum consultant, teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, fitness community leader, and author of over 30 health and physical education resources including the upcoming book Physical Literacy on the Move. Gardner says that the 2015 curriculum takes important steps toward a more inclusive approach to PE that emphasizes the crucial connection between physical activity and wellness while also introducing the countless varieties of activity that support that connection.

    According to Gardner, “Variety is key. Opportunities for both competitive and non-competitive programs need to be offered to meet the needs of all students. Educators need to go beyond the sole focus of competitive sports which cater to only a few talented students.”

    Gardner adds that while the new curriculum still leaves ample room for more traditional team sports, “The addition of a number of individual pursuits as well as games and activities from other countries are now reflected. In fact, yoga is referenced in the grade 1-8 curriculum 14 times.”

    The Alberta H&PE Council argues that girls in particular do enjoy continued exposure to new and non-traditional activities. Douglas says that she has indeed found success in breaking from tradition and incorporating experiential  activities that appeal to the broad range of interests among her students.

    Douglas says, “This semester our class of grade 9 girls will have gone biking, swimming, ice skating, and trampolining. On top of that, we’ve connected with a community organization called Team Unbreakable (CameronHelps), which will help to engage the whole school community in a running program and we all know how inclusive and engaging running can be!”

    Gardner agrees that the surrounding community might be an educator’s greatest asset and encourages them to, “Get out into the community! Take your students to a fitness centre or rock climbing wall. Have students plan trips within the school’s safety guidelines and connect learning to their real life.”

    Empowerment and Safety in the Classroom

    Beyond greater variety, educators need to create the space where students feel safe in pursuing these activities, especially those that may be entirely new. “Teachers put a lot of focus on physical safety in their PE programs,” Gardner says, “but also need to take emotionally safety into consideration.”

    Douglas urges that language and attitudes should empower students and avoid outdated stereotypes. Douglas says, “As educators, coaches, and community leaders, we all work to provide a myriad of PE opportunities to engage young females. While doing so, we must model appropriate words and behaviours and avoid perpetuating stereotype that young women are disinterested in sports due to lack of ability.”

    It’s as simple as referring to a knee push-up as a modified push-up rather than girl push-up. Douglas adds, “If we shift the focus onto what a young female can accomplish – improvements in agility, flexibility, power, strength, endurance – rather than on how she looks, acts, and behaves, it will help provide a safe, supportive, and inclusive space and encourage participation in our young female athletes.”

    Gardner encourages educators to be proactive and get to know their students’ interests so that these can be built into programming. In addition, giving female students leadership opportunities within a learning environment is a sure way to provide both empowerment and mutual support. As a simple strategy, Gardner suggests, “Provide opportunities for female students to get involved supporting younger female students through the use of fitness buddies. Similar to a reading buddy program, older students team up with younger students and help them get active in a fun and inclusive way.”

    There is no quick fix, but what Gardner and Douglas outline are the basic principles from which educators should start when engaging students, namely inclusion, safety, and a focus on physical activity as a life skill that can be realized through many different pathways.

    For more information, Ophea offers a wide variety of lesson plans and resources that can help bring these concepts into practice.

    • Ravi Singh