In this week’s Column, we analyse some of the factors deemed to influence the participation of girls and women in physical activity across the world and more particularly, in the Caribbean.
Research conducted by the prestigious University of Loughborough, United Kingdom (UK), asked 1500 students about their views on fitness and found that just over half of girls (51 per cent) are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE lessons.
Just under half (45 per cent) think sport is too competitive, while over a third say their PE teacher only pays attention to pupils who are good at sport.
The study is not only reflective of what obtains in the UK. This scenario is easily replicated elsewhere.
Virtually everything that happens in the early year within the home impacts the child for the rest of his/her life.
The family therefore is the foundation stone of a life of fitness and general wellbeing.
The fact that so many children in St Vincent and the Grenadines, like so many other countries of the Caribbean and farther afield, are found to be obese in early childhood is therefore directly attributable to the family. This may have to do with the lack of knowledge of the importance of good eating habits, sound diet and fitness on the part of one or both parents.
An essential part of good parenting is ensuring that the child is fed appropriately and that at home he/she sees the parents doing the same. It is all the more important that the child, in his/her formative years, sees the parents engaging in physical activity with an understanding of the role that this plays in general well being. Children tend to mimic what they see in early childhood and so would seek to accompany their parents in the physical activity in which they are involved.
Parents who have no idea of the role of physical activity to human well being demand that their children beat the books since good grades lead to success in life, whatever of the physical appearance and general well being of the child. They are also the ones most likely to take away physical activity from their children once they seem to f all short in their academic work.
Julia Mary Whitty’s study on Adolescent girls in Physical Education and Sport: An Analysis of Influences on Participation (1999) concluded, Thus, evidence suggests that families positively influence children’s involvement in sport and physical activity through parents’ activity participation, financial and emotional support, time and effort such as transportation and volunteer work through encouragement and promoting. Where this support is not forthcoming children and less likely to be physically active.
From the home the child begins schooling.
In many countries teachers at the kindergarten level do have some understanding of and appreciation for the contribution good diet and eating habits, sleep and play have in the early development of the children in their care. However, as in the case in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the kindergarten teachers do not have any foundation in physical education.
Kindergarten teachers often rely on invited coaches to engage the students in sport.
Unfortunately not all of the trained and certified coaches have been trained in physical education. Because the kindergarten teaches are themselves unaware of the intricacies of physical education they are unable to do better and leave the coaches to their own devices.
The end result is the introduction of sport specific training without the benefit of the critical components of physical education being delivered to the students. Those who fail to show an early aptitude to the particular sport may be discouraged and be dissuaded from practising sport for the rest of their lives.
A paper produced by the Women’s Sport Foundation noted… Lack of physical education in schools and limited opportunities to play sports in both high school and college mean girls have to look elsewhere for sports – which may not exist or may cost more money. Often there is an additional lack of access to adequate playing facilities near their homes that makes it more difficult for girls to engage in sports.
We have mentioned on several occasions the fact that while there is a national sports policy in St Vincent and the Grenadines the government does little more than pay lip service to it. Physical education is not compulsory in our educational institutions.
Teachers at our pre schools and primary schools are not trained in physical education. What happens is that someone is asked to take the students out to play. Without a foundation in physical education the assigned teacher does what he/she is told – facilitate play. There is no focus on the rudiments of rhythm and coordination – critical to later development.
The Primary Schools follows on from Kindergarten and here we do have a problem in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
As is the case at the Kindergarten level Physical Education is not compulsory at the Primary School level. This leaves a major vacuum in the lives of the children growing up, unless, of course, the parents take it upon themselves to do so.
Thus it is that in the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines our students are denied the appropriate introduction to physical activity and sport in a formal sense, until they arrive at the secondary school level. By this time however they are already set in their ways and some may never adapt to the changes being foisted on them by PE teachers who are caught up in the whirlwind of a slew of sporting competitions at the Inter House and Inter Secondary Schools level. This significantly limits the participation of all students but particularly girls. The result is the selection of those students who display an aptitude for the particular sport and they are prepared for and participate in the competitions. The other students are left to play among themselves or watch those who have been selected. This is often an important part of the development of their sedentary lifestyle.
It is hardly ever the case that during Open Days parents and teachers take time to address the physical activities in which the students engage themselves and the impact that this has on their attention span, productivity at home and school as well as the general disposition towards being a better person through healthy interaction with others – all benefits of participation in physical activity.
More often than not the interest in the students relate to performance in their academic subjects and if engagement in physical activity is ever mentioned it is directly relate dot whether or not it inhibits the child’s focus on his/her academic work.
Then there is also the case of girls being dissatisfied with the approach taken by teachers of Physical Education. According to the Women Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), nearly half of the least active girls say they do not like the activities they are offered in PE, compared with 26 per cent of the most active.
While there may be issues regarding the attitudes girls bring to their Physical Education sessions it is nonetheless important that we appreciate the findings of the WSFF.
It is also at the school that children are introduced to the gender biases of physical activity and sport. Instead of establishing the parameters of physical education and its extensive range of activities teachers often identify sport as gender related.
It is often the case that girls are made to see some sports as decidedly male or unfeminine.
There continues to be much debate as to whether physical education and sport classes should be single sex of mixed sex. Some seem to think that in the short term there ought to be single sex classes in order for the girls to begin feeling comfortable in their surroundings before being shifted to mixed sex classes.
Some studies show a propensity for girls be shy about engaging in physical education and sport classes alongside boys since the latter tend to show-off their physique and performance capabilities, often deliberately seeking to intimidate the girls.
Girls therefore feel less empowered to participate in physical activity in school as a result of being self-conscious in the midst of an environment where people play to win at all cost and that often translates into near-bullying and heavy doses of aggression.
The WSFF puts it this was… Over three-quarters (76 per cent) of girls agreed that female pupils are self-conscious about their bodies, with around a quarter saying they feel their body is on show in PE and this makes them like the subject less.
While the concept of fair play is bandied about in the world of sport girls often find that if they show any compassion for others in competition they are chastised for being feminine and therefore weak.
Girls are therefore deterred from participating in physical activity at school.
In many countries it is often the case that schools do not have appropriate facilities catering for girls involved in physical education and sport. While it is the norm for boys to engage in physical education sessions and return to their classes without being bothered by the sweat that they generated during the allocated period, girls cannot. The latter would be decidedly uncomfortable for the rest of the day. It would be considered highly unhygienic for girls to stay all day or whatever part of the day sweat-filled following engagement in physical activity.
The girls need to shower before returning dressing in their school uniforms and return to their regular classes.
According to the WSFF, … just under half (48 per cent) of the girls questioned said that getting sweaty is not feminine.
Unfortunately we do not cater for this in St Vincent and the Grenadines and many other societies around us. This offers girls a very good reason not to engage in physical activity during school hours.