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Parents, teachers can help 'girly' girls learn to be active

As children return to school this month, one New Mexico State University researcher says parents and teachers can help young girls be active, despite stereotypes and self-identified barriers that label them as "girly" and often keep them from participating in physical activity.

In a study this past spring with fifth-grade students at Las Cruces area elementary schools, Kimberly Oliver, an associate professor in the NMSU College of Education's Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Department, looked at what barriers were keeping young girls from participating in physical activity and then worked with the same girls to identify how to overcome those obstacles.

Oliver said the girls often self-described themselves as "girly" because they did not like to sweat and did not want to mess up their hair, nails and nice clothes. She said some even purposely wore inappropriate shoes, such as flip flops, so they would not have to participate in activities that might cause them to sweat. Oliver said accepted stereotypes of "girly" girls contribute to the problem.

"If adults, including teachers and parents, accept that a girl is too 'girly' to participate instead of working with them to make them interested, then the girls will never overcome their issues. We determined early on that we wanted to go in and listen to what the girls had to say and not assume we had the answers," said Oliver, who was assisted in her research by Manal Hamzeh, an NMSU graduate student.

Oliver said it was important to let the girls know that it was OK to be "girly," especially since at least 85 percent of girls are labeled as "girly" at some point, but that it also was important to teach the girls how to be active and "girly" at the same time.

Oliver and Hamzeh suggested that the girls make up their own physical activities that would allow them to wear their nice clothes and not make them sweat.

"Once we said this, they often came up with games that did indeed cause them to sweat, but it was OK because the activity was their choice and not pushed upon them," Oliver said.

She said they also identified through the study that often "girly" girls are pushed out of traditional physical activities by other students and because of that many of the games the girls created were inclusive of all the participants. As part of the study, Oliver and Hamzeh assisted the girls in making a book of physical activities that "girly" girls might enjoy.

Oliver reported in her research that 21 games were created by the girls. Some were tag-like games which sometimes included the use of equipment. Others were centered on skill and involved the use of some type of ball.

For example, "color tag volleyball" is a game the girls created for days when they "didn't want to break a nail." The object of this game is to keep a beach ball in the air by passing it back and forth to your partner while simultaneously being chased by the other group as they attempt to steal the colored flags attached at the waist.

"We have to look beyond the traditional idea of physical activity and male-dominated sports. We want to encourage young people to be active, not to be star athletes," Oliver said. "Teachers should think about letting students make up games in smaller groups. Everyone should be physically active in a way that is comfortable for them."

Oliver also recommended that parents and teachers not allow young girls to use being "girly" as an excuse, but to recognize that they may want to be active in different ways.

"All girls, regardless of how they dress or act, can find ways to be physically active if they have support from adults who care," Oliver said.

Oliver presented her study at the American Education Research Association meeting in Chicago this past April. She said she would like to conduct a similar study with middle school-age girls.