What’s the best way to promote the athletic development of young boys and girls? A group of Australian researchers set out to shed some light on this topic. They had access to a pool of 560 four-year-olds. A large portion of the children participated in a program that developed physical skills at age four. The other portion did not participate in the program. How would those who participated in the program develop compared to those who did not? Would boys and girls exhibit any differences?
Before we dive into the results, let’s discuss the way the children were assessed. The assessment measured two criteria: movement abilities and object control abilities. Movement abilities are things like running, skipping, and jumping. Object control abilities are things like throwing a baseball, striking a soccer ball, and dribbling a basketball.
After the fitness program ended, students who participated showed a definite advantage over those who did not participate. This held true for both boys and girls, and both movement and object control skills. But at eight years-old, about three years after the physical fitness program ended, a different picture emerged. In movement skills, both groups of boys and girls had caught up to each other. The group that participated in the physical fitness program no longer held an advantage. The same was true of boys with object control skills. By age eight all of the boys were throwing, kicking, and striking with about the same prowess. But while the girls who participated in the physical fitness program still held an advantage in object control skills over the girls who did not, somehow all the boys had caught up in object control skills.
What’s the explanation? Environmental factors. All the boys managed to learn object control skills during the ensuing three years between the physical fitness program and the follow-up tests. But very few girls learned object control skills during that time, unless they were taught during the physical fitness program. In simple terms, boys were taught how to throw as part of everyday life, while girls were not.
My opinion: We must stop sabotaging the athletic development of young women. Even unknowingly, parents often adhere to historical norms that treated women as fragile and weak rather than capable human beings. In short, get your daughters out onto a field. Spend equal time teaching them how to throw a ball as you do teaching them how to dress a doll. The following eighty years of her life will be determined by what you teach her in the first fifteen years. So teach her how to really live.
1. Zask, Avigdor, et al. “Three year follow-up of an early childhood intervention: is movement skill sustained?” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9:127, 2012.
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