I grew up in the 70s and when I was eight I joined Little League to play baseball — with the boys. It was a big deal at the time, but not to me since I loved playing the game and my sister was my role model and coach. This changed around age 11 when being a girl became “a thing.”
The benefits of physical activity are well documented and far reaching from academic, to physical to social so there is more at stake for girls than equal representation.
My teammates and peers turned on me as I got older. I was teased and started to feel excluded: I was no longer one of the boys and not one of the girls. Adults who once supported me, worried about me physically playing the game and worried about the potential stigma and stereotypes that came with playing a boys’ sport as an older girl. So I quit.
Today, while there are more female athlete role models and more opportunities for girls to participate in physical activity, a lot of the same messages and societal expectations weigh heavily on girls. Research shows that girls’ participation in sport/physical activity declines significantly compared to boys around age 10 and plummets by middle school.
The benefits of physical activity are well documented and far reaching from academic, to physical to social, so there is more at stake for girls than equal representation. Girls are missing out on opportunities to be healthy, to create habits for a healthy adulthood and to build competence related to their bodies. They are missing out on opportunities to build protective factors such as confidence and positive peer interactions which can reduce the effects of stressful life events and increase the ability to avoid risk and hazard such as depression, anxiety and violence.
As people who care about girls and want to keep girls healthy, what can we do? Girls on the Run was created in part to engage and reengage girls in physical activity as well as teach essential life skills to navigate their world. Some of what works in our program is applicable at home, in the school setting or anywhere you are connecting with girls:
We make it fun. The program is full of running games and collaborative, activities that get girls moving without realizing it. Girls might play a relay game to learn a skill for communication, or complete a lap with each teammate and ask questions to get to know them better. Before they know it, they have completed 12 laps and made a new friend.
You can try new activities with your girl. Focus on the fun and the experience, not exercise or long term health goals. Get her engaged in a new adventure and she will participate naturally. She will quickly become aware of how good it feels to move without you telling her.
We make it personal. During each lesson girls set personal lap goals based on their own level and progress. For one girl it might be doing one more lap each practice; for another it might be jogging more than walking. The coaches help by listening, encouraging and checking in on progress. As girls set and reach their goals, set new goals and increase their confidence. This climate increases girls’ motivation and makes it more likely they will continue to be active and create habits for healthy living.
Let her set and define her goals then provide her the opportunities and support to achieve them. Let her know that perfection is not the expectation — progress is. She will build her confidence and most likely stick with it or feel she can tackle something new.
We make it social. Throughout the season, the girls build strong connections and friendships with each other through intentional activities that require teamwork and allow girls to find out what makes each unique and what similarities they share. They encourage each other and build a peer support system.
You can ask if she wants to invite a friend from time to time. Through working together they can learn more about themselves and each other. Or find activities where she can make new friends and extend her social circle.
We make it about the whole girl. We know that girls need to be socially and emotionally healthy as well as physically healthy. We intentionally teach life skills while getting girls moving. For example, a lesson on resolving conflict starts with a collaborative activity that requires compromise and communication, keys to conflict resolution, to complete it. Then through a game we introduce a tool for communication and later practice it. As the lesson wraps up, the girls reflect on how they can use the new skill at home, at school and with friends.
You can choose activities that allow you and your girl to talk and connect. A lot of great conversations can be had on a hike or during a water break. Because the focus is on the activity, there is a greater likelihood that your girl might open up more than usual and you can more easily share your experiences with her. Easy segues to conversation can relate to the activity. For example, if you’re climbing a hill on a hike, why not talk about some “hills” you’ve climbed, and what hills she is experiencing?
It takes all of us to be vigilant and keep an eye on the physical and emotional health of our girls. When we see them start to opt out of physical activity or no longer want to play on the team, we need to step in and find ways to keep her engaged, confident and active.
To find out how to bring Girls on the Run to your school or community go to: www.girlsontherun.org