Teen girls and the equal play gap

Health and fitness headlines this week focused on teen girls as sloths putting their heath at risk. See Lack of vigourous exercise leaves teen girls at risk,  for example.

Here’s a quote from the article above:

A study published in Pediatrics this fall analyzed the moderate-to-vigorous physical activity of teenagers and found that girls were far less likely to meet the recommended amount of exercise than their male counterparts. This started early in high school (10th grade) and remained consistent throughout the teenage years. This trend can persist further into life too, as women exercise less than men, according to a 2012 study published in Preventive Medicine.

One way to report on looks at it through the lens of stereotypes about teenagers, especially teenage girls. They care too much about their hair and they don’t like to sweat. And they don’t care enough about their health. Yeah, yeah.

But another lens we could use to view this news is that of equality.

In the book that Tracy and I have written that’s being published next fall–just in time for Christmas 2017!–I talk about the “play gap” between men and women.

Very few Canadian children move as much as they should but what’s interesting from a feminist perspective is the gap between boys and girls when it comes to physical activity. The “play gap” starts in early childhood and gets worse as people mature. I argue that the play gap matters as the benefits of  physical activity aren’t just related to health. Making time and allocating resources for women’s sports isn’t a trivial matter. There are also important implications for women’s agency and autonomy.

We tend to focus on childhood inactivity and not notice that it’s gendered.

This is from a Toronto Sun report on Canada’s children and fitness: “Canada’s children just got a D- in physical fitness for the third year in a row. Just 9% of Canada’s children between the ages of 9 and 15 meet the recommended guideline of one hour of activity per day. Experts are blaming the dismal showing on the so-called “protection paradox.” Parents try to keep children safe by not allowing them to move freely between home and school, or engage in active, outdoor play, but as a result our children are leading increasingly sedentary lives.”

The play gap exists even among very young children and gets worse in the teen girls. I’m not saying we have no reason to worry about teenage girls. We do.

Teenage girls are a pretty inactive group. In the United States physical activity among girls drops dramatically during the teen years, and many don’t do any by the time they reach 18 or 19, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. More than half of black girls and a third of white girls do no regular leisure physical activity at 16 and 17.

One study estimates that young women sit or lie down for 19 hours a day including long bouts of inactivity during school time.

See Teen Girls Choose Inactivity.

Probably we should look at the exercise options available to teenage girls. Probably we should also think about how best to support them through a life stage where there is a certain amount of discomfort about their changing bodies. We should think about safety when it comes to walking or riding bikes to school. We should think about the attitudes they face from teenage boys when it comes to working out and being active.

What do you think would help?

Was there an age at which you started being less active? Were you a teen sloth? 



10 thoughts on “Teen girls and the equal play gap

  1. We have a middle-schooler who has been passionate about gymnastics for >5 years now. She used to dabble in other sports (softball; one season of basketball; two years of a martial art;soccer for three seasons but it never really took). Slowly the other sports have fallen away. I am ambivalent about gymnastics as her sport but since she loves it so, I hope she sticks with it at least through high school.

    My husband often notes that girls in her peer group seem to socialize less and less around physical activity (i.e. they get together to bake, do crafts, or play board games) whereas boys seem to still get together to shoot hoops or even just run around outside, in late elementary and middle school. Even in the after-school programs I see the boys shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around. I guess the girls are indoors? It’s not that the girls have zero access to sorts, but it seems to be something the end up doing only in team or organized situations, vs, spontaneous or casual environments.

  2. I think that some of the options for girls can be quite expensive, and they aren’t always acknowledged as “real” sports. My son played hockey, volleyball and basketball, and dabbled in soccer, rugby and football. My daughter is a serious dancer and equestrian, but few see her as an athlete (including my son – until he discovered she could whip him at many skills involving core muscles). The things she enjoys tend to emphasize grace and precision as much as athleticism. Maybe if we want to engage girls who are feeling uncomfortable about their bodies, we need to get them doing things that help them feel beautiful? And at the same time, celebrate the girls who love being powerful athletic (the soccer, rugby, martial arts types). Both get sweaty and strong.

  3. A topic that is close to my heart. I am a mom to two really active teen age girls. Both play sports competitively, and also for fun, alternating seasons with their respective sports. Girls field lacrosse, soccer and ice hockey. They are both strong and thin and do not seem to have body image issues as their bodies and strength are a source of pride. Neither is afraid to sweat. I also volunteer in my community with girls hockey. I am proud of fact my girls are so active. They have to want to keep playing sports and thankfully they do. They have chosen their own sports. As parents, I think a lot of teen girls are turned off when their parents try to live through them in sports and push them to play at a higher level then they should. For some parents rep sports become a status thing and stops being about the girls. And as they grow, and begin to assert themselves, these girls often stop playing to please their parents and as other pressures grow such as jobs, first loves, and pressure of school. For them, the social peice of team sports is just as important as the sport itself so if the social piece is not managed well by the league or organization, this can also have a detrimental effect. And lastly, coaching girls is very different from coaching boys in sports. Some males get it, and some never will. And this can be a turn off for girls over time if not coached appropriately. We sadly, do not have enough women coaches step forward in organized sports and even in girls leagues this is very evident. I also think that I, as their mom, being so active has encouraged them to be active as well. I played ice hockey, softball and volley ball growing up,and stil play ice hockey.

  4. Interesting. I stopped playing organized sports around 15, which I think contributed to less activity on my part. I was busy with school & a job, so I didn’t prioritize exercise very much (although standing/walking/lifting at my job was good exercise). That was probably the first time in my life when “exercise” needed to be scheduled and didn’t naturally come from playing outside or being involved in sports. A lot of the girls I knew also stopped sports around middle school/jr. high if they knew they weren’t going to play for a high school or college. It seemed that recreational (vs. highly competitive) sport became less acceptable or prioritized because teens were focused on college and career preparation.

    I think the point about girls not getting together to be active is also valid–it’s pretty common for guys to get together and casually play their preferred sport, but I can’t recall knowing of a group of girls who ever did.

  5. I did a little bit of sports when I was younger, but never really stuck to anything – was probably spending too much time gallivanting. It’s only as I have gotten older I have started getting into sports.

  6. I grew up in a time and place where girls weren’t encouraged to play much in the way of sports – muscles and sweating were unsightly. Girls who played soccer with the boys were tomboys. Volleyball was an acceptable sport for girls, but that was about it. There were certainly no organized leagues for girls, and barely any for boys. The well-off families had access to gyms and pools at their country clubs but the rest of us had to make do with one public pool that was really not very clean (gave me an ear infection that required an emergency hospital stay). So I don’t have much of a template for encouraging my daughter to stay involved in athletics. (In the last few years I’ve become obsessed with my martial art, but my kids have moved beyond it.)

    With that said, we were of the generation that was free-range – I biked everywhere – and we played lots of outdoor games that involved multiple players and raucous after-dark competitions. (I don’t even know what the games would be called in English!!) Luckily she likes sports well enough on her own, and her dad always played a bunch of sports. But my experience doesn’t map all that well to what my kids have now. So we try a lot of different sports and see what sticks. Is it too late to teach a new generation how to play street games?

  7. The issue of good coaching/mentorship for teen girls is very important.
    For myself personally and my siblings ..we were raised in a generation in 1970’s where we walked to and from high school. No car lifts. Transit was extremely rarely used by us even though it stopped in front school and bus stop was only 10 min. walk from home. It was cost..for 6 children.

    Starting in high school, the only “exercise” I took up voluntarily was…riding a single speed bike that I shared with 5 sisters. We were VERY poor in Ontario. So we each only rode on weekends for fun. My parents didn’t feel we were safe on busy roads.

    🙂 Yes, absolutely my motivation to return to bicycling @32 was precisely because of my happy teen memories. I tried out for girl’s field hockey but found I just lost stamina after a few sessions. But I did love it. Some of my sisters were on the high school cross-country running team..which is running 1-5 kms races.

    We were also required as teens, to shovel snow, chop ice off the sidewalk, light gardening, rake leaves….do we see girls and boys do this around the house these days?????

    I knew a few girls who were playing volleyball, basketball on the school team. 1 of them actually now is French language teacher same high school now and coaches 1-2 girls’ teams there. She had several brothers who also played team soccer and basketball at same high school. She came from an immigrant Greek family, so no extra money for extra coaching. This means teachers, as coaches after school can be critical for families that lack extra money!!!

    Teen girls do place importance on socializing among themselves. OUr friendships….at least to me and what I noticed, are close and many hrs. spent talking a lot. For cycling, it would take teen girls who don’t mind being “loners”/odd balls because it is solitary sport but with benefit of less teamwork pressure. I fit naturally in that category my whole life…..a friendly loner who enjoyed socializing but found contentment in activities I loved on my own as a teen –art, reading, writing poetry and bicycling. 🙂

    It’s important we give teen girls space to like or dislike/drop a form of physical activity that they’ve lost interest. I’m a big believer to have teen girls participate with family and friends a variety of activities…make the experience a great workout but fun. You want them to return to something as an adiult later.

    There is also the demand of academic excellence and studying that increases every year in high school…If we place the demands on girls to be engineers, doctors, biochemists…then they have to buckle down to compete.

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