How I brought a love of PE to reluctant female learners

Girls can often be reluctant to get involved in PE, but with the right approach they can become highly engaged in the subject - wherever you are in the world

Rachel Ford

Getting girls into PE takes time but is always worth it

When we talk about why we wanted to become teachers, we talk about passion, enthusiasm, commitment.

Most of us also talk about having a teacher who inspired us, usually in the subject we decided to teach and how we wanted to become like them.

We are then likely to talk about how we hope to become a similar role model: something I feel blessed to feel I have achieved during my time as a PE teacher – especially since I moved to teach internationally.

Baby steps to engagement 

The first impact I made came when I started teaching in Malaysia, where PE for girls was not seen as an important subject.

Males should be clever and strong. For females, the part about being strong was less important.

As such, my classes would be very split between males and females. Most males would be very involved and competitive, whereas females would "forget" their kit or barely try.

So I took baby steps to get girls involved, often allowing the girls to choose their own teams, work separately from the boys and also minimise competition.

Other ways into PE

So for example, many of the activities would focus on participation: how many different activities could girls experience in one term? How many different girls could work together to complete a task?

When studying a games unit, the score in a game would not be the main focus. We would instead focus on how well students contributed to their team.

The Sports Education Model was perfect for this teaching style as students could choose the role they wished to fulfil. For example, in basketball, some students did not enjoy playing competitively but they were very skilled, and they would enjoy teaching their friends and helping them improve.

Therefore, they were best suited to a coaching role. Other students had a fantastic understanding of the rules, so they would act as umpires. Other artistic pupils would design team badges. All of this combined helped the students to feel part of a team.

A team effort in all regards

The students wanted to achieve together, and I found this meant they would do their job to their best ability and also participate in practices and games for the good of their team. I would also get involved myself so that students could see an active female.

A turning point for both primary and secondary PE was when girls got competitive among themselves and others.

This took time, but I feel the girls not only recognised their progress, but they also felt comfortable as part of the class and part of their team.

Over time, a safe learning environment where mistakes were learned from was created and, what’s more, we started to see more female-only sports and physical activity clubs developed to give girls ownership of their own sporting activities.

Changing mindsets

While this was all happening in the secondary school, at the primary level I was able to take a different approach: I did not need to divide activities by gender, so girls could play football and boys could dance without any comments.

What’s more, I made sure there was a culture that valued all participation and did not allow stereotypes to cloud their enjoyment of PE. You would never hear me say “Don’t throw like a girl”, of course, but most importantly, I challenged any teacher or parent who did follow stereotypes or make such comments.

Some teachers just did not realise the power of their words and I had to highlight the issues. Some teachers needed showing that females can be just as good and do just as much – I was happy to take on any challenge!

This was tough at times, but I was protesting for my students.

By the time I left the school, girls had as many school sports teams as boys and female participation was at an all-time high.

Starting again

I moved to teach in China and was immediately faced with a similar problem on low PE engagement among female pupils.

The majority of female students did not want to exert themselves and were rarely motivated by competition. I used the same techniques as in Malaysia and produced similar outcomes.

This showed the importance of involving females in sports and physical activities from a young age: encouraging them to participate and compete against themselves and others, teaching them it is good to win and lose, and teaching them to be resilient individuals and team players.

Just as in Malaysia, I found that, at the primary level, it was easy to teach males and females this together.

A positive impact for all

Maybe if we get this right at the primary school level by disregarding gender stereotypes, the battle will be easier at a secondary level.

Overall, I can gladly say that as I worked with female students more, girls become more interested in – and enthusiastic towards – PE.

I can honestly say that I believe this was because the girls were not influenced by any stereotypes and they saw a confident, active female role model who showed them that girls could be active, strong and competitive.

I had fulfilled one of my roles as a PE teacher by simply being myself. I hope more female PE teaches around the world recognise how important their role is in inspiring girls in PE.

Rachel Ford is a Whole School PE Teacher at a Bilingual School in Hangzhou, China

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