If you grew up in the ’90s or even early aughts, it’s likely that you remember the girls being split up from the boys during gym class. Girls would do things like learn aerobics dances and boys would play dodgeball, until they eventually split you up for “health” class, where you learned about getting your period and how to put on a condom. Although in many states, physical education classes are co-ed these days up until puberty, making gym classes as gender neutral as possible all the way though is an absolute brilliant idea.
Even though there’s so much we find charming about our childhoods, it definitely didn’t help us build a healthy foundation when it came to how we viewed gender.
And splitting up boys and girls is a big part of that. Making all activities and classes gender-inclusive not only reenforces the idea that there is no such thing as “girl” and “boy” activities, it could also set women up for success later on in life. The chief executive of the U.K.’s Women in Sport, Ruth Holdaway, told the Daily Telegraph that boys be made to do zumba and ballet in gym class in order to make physical education classes more gender neutral. She thinks girls should be given the option to “play cricket” or another typically “male” sport. She told the Telegraph:
To be fair, it’s not likely that anyone in the U.S. wants to play cricket (JK, Brits, we love cricket), but offering the same options of sports to kids in K-12 gym class is a good idea. Luckily, most states have moved out of the dark age when it comes to co-ed gym class, for better or worse. It’s up to each school district to decide whether it makes sense for boys and girls to take gym class together, but even when the classes are co-ed, teachers still tend to split up teams or groups into “boys and girls.” At least according to student complaints on Twitter, it’s confusing AF for everyone involved. It’s also just not as fun.
Already, the U.S. gym curriculum is reportedly getting “nicer” than it used to be, according to the Washington Post. So if you remember just running for cover during dodgeball or dreading the physical fitness tests where you had to rope climb, kids aren’t doing those sort of activities any longer. Dolly Lambdin, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) told the Post, “The country depends on us to do something different than what we have been doing. We cared too much about who is the best, who can do the most push-ups, and not nearly enough about what it means to be healthy and physically active for a lifetime.”
In Washington D.C., for example, schools receive a grant to do these sort of activities in gym class. So instead of random games, kids are learning archery, yoga, and bike riding. In higher grades, they’re learning how to monitor their heart rates and come up with physical fitness plans as they get older.
If only every school district were as progressive. A lot fewer people would fake period cramps during P.E. if they could spend it practicing how to go all Hunger Games, right?
Teaching kids that physical fitness is about health — and that pretty much all options are on the table for all kids regardless of gender — is important, especially since girls tend to lose interest in sports way earlier than boys, usually around age 6 or 7. By the time girls hit puberty, at around 14 years old, they’re dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys, and you know not every boy is a star soccer player, right? Holdaway added in her interview:
Refinery 29 and Gatorade did a survey of teen girls, asking them why they dropped out of sports. Most teen girls said that they felt there was no future for them in sports or that they just “weren’t good enough” at one to carry on. However, over 90 percent of C-suite executives played sports in high school. It’s not like playing sports is the key to success (really, a lot of us can’t throw a ball to save our soul and still slay at life), but playing sports should be something that more girls feel supported in doing, if only because other research shows it leads to greater self esteem and higher educational ambitions.
Changing how we approach physical activity and sports in gym classes in elementary school, and getting rid of silly gender stereotypes, is definitely one way to do that.
Our society as a whole does value women in sports a lot less than men. A high school girl playing basketball or soccer has fewer options, and even if she does go all the way, she’s got significantly lower salaries waiting for her in the professional sports world. But that, too, could change if we prioritize giving women the same choices as men and stop assuming that we know what young girls want to do in gym class. If we tailored gym curriculums so they were gender neutral, and stopped splitting kids up into gendered teams, who knows what they’d get into.