PE for Girls Over Three Generations by
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A very fit dancer who hates PE

Here’s what I remember about PE: Dodge ball, choosing teams, and climbing ropes. None of these are skills of any use in my life beyond high school gym class. Mostly they are negative memories of being smacked with a ball, praying not to be picked last, and only getting part-way up the rope. My high school didn’t even have a swimming pool when I attended, which would have been helpful for me long-term. For girls in the sixties, if you didn’t make cheerleading, there was only GAA. Anyone remember that? Girls Athletic Association was an after-school, intramural activity in which I mostly played volleyball with my friends.

I wish my PE perils had been more pleasurable and that I had learned activities I could have done all of my life.

Between my experiences with PE and my daughters’, Title IX was passed in 1972. It stated that,

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This meant my daughters would have equitable sports opportunities in public school. No more GAA, which was a good thing. When my youngest daughter ran hurdles on the high school track team, it was in official meets against other schools, just like the boys. On the other hand, her sister’s PE experiences were not too dissimilar from mine.

My daughters grew up in Illinois, where daily PE is mandatory in school. Both were very fit and competitive figure skaters. For the one who enjoyed gym class all the way through high school, PE was a pleasure. In fact, she credits high school gym class for her recruitment to be on the track team. But for her sister, who disliked PE immensely, especially after grammar school age, it was definitely a peril. She never enjoyed team ball sports like softball, volleyball, or soccer. By the time she was in middle school, despite skating several hours a day, it didn’t matter that she was more fit than most of their peers. PE was one-size-fits all. Even in high school, my daughter who ran varsity track, also had to attend gym classes.

Fast forward a generation. Now their daughters, who are amazing athletes, are having very different PE experiences. One granddaughter lives in Indiana where PE is a once/week activity that rotates with activities like music and art. This works out fine for her as she is on a swim team and practices 16 hours a week in addition to numerous weekend swim meets. She also plans to run cross country next year. Perhaps because PE only happens once a week, children in her community seem to enjoy it. By high school, students in a varsity sport can opt out of PE or do weight lifting. That will be great for her, but what about children who are not physically fit?

At the other extreme is Illinois, where middle and high school PE is 40 minutes a day, every day. My Illinois granddaughter dislikes PE as much as her mother did. Because she spends 15-20 hours a week in dance classes, she is in great shape. She would love to participate in physical fitness workouts at school. Instead, she is playing the same ball sports as her mother and grandmother. By middle school, she had sampled all of the typical team sports and knew she disliked them. While some of her friends love soccer or softball or volley ball or tennis, all she would like is the same opportunity to get exercise doing something she enjoys like fitness training, yoga, Pilates, or running. Additionally, what is the point of having to take written tests on the rules of sports she will never play?

Things will get even worse for her in high school. There, the written tests count toward a student’s GPA. If students miss PE due to illness, they must come in before school to work out with a heart rate monitor to make up the gym classes. During junior and senior years, they may choose the PE activity they like. Before that, it’s 11 years of daily gym classes that they may or may not enjoy.

There are some good reasons to offer PE classes more than once a week. Many students these days are not physically fit. Kids need a break from all of the sitting they do in school and benefit from the opportunity to move and be active. My point is that as long as the activity promotes physical fitness, why can’t PE offer choices? Would most girls be better served by learning about healthy eating and by encouraging them to participate in activities they will actually bring with them into adulthood? Also, something between once a week and every day would make a lot of sense. And written tests are just plain silly.

I wish my PE perils had been more pleasurable and that I had learned activities I could have done all of my life. Fitness is a very worthy goal. I’m glad my daughters and granddaughters have the opportunity for meaningful participation in athletic activities that was denied to me. As Michelle Obama advocated, “let’s move,” but let’s let middle and high school girls choose how they want to achieve that goal.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, when you wrote “GAA”, my brain immediately knew what it stood for, but I had no idea what it was. Clearly we are of the same generation, PE-wise. Your reference to Title IX is an interesting one and how it changed athletics for girls and women in a school environment across this country for the better. I hadn’t made that connection. But you also make the correct case for your granddaughter, who is fit, and loves certain athletic activities, that she should get credit for what she does and not be forced to learn the rules of ball sports that she will never participate in. We still live in a crazy world with unfair rules. This isn’t really about fitness, it is about variable rules from one state to another about what passes for fitness. Your story makes many excellent points.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. If the goal is fitness, then the form of exercise shouldn’t matter. Happily, girls today have better choices than we did back in those GAA days. Unfortunately, those choices often happen outside of PE class and school sports teams. Even high school dance ensembles are not considered vehicles for physical fitness.

  2. OMG Laurie. Dodge ball and climbing ropes, too? Yikes. Did some cadre of demented, PE teachers all go to the same school(s)?

    Your comments on the evolution of PE, especially for women, is wonderful. I have no daughters but I have three nieces, all three of which thrived in being introduced to athletics at an early age. Your point about the “GAA” is spot on: my sisters, one and two years older than I, suffered under similar circumstances.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Tom, I think PE teachers back in the day must have majored in Dodge ball and embarrassing kids by letting the best athletes choose their teams. I know it’s better now, just not better enough. There are some great PE teachers out there but also some relics from the past. Thanks for sharing your sisters’ similar fates.

  3. Marian says:

    Laurie, I do remember GAA, which was clearly second class, although at least it did give the girls who liked team sports some opportunity to play. It’s too bad that people have to wait until college to get more PE choices. Amazing how different your daughters’ and granddaughters’ PE experiences have been.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Marian, I’m sure GAA has disappeared, which is a good thing. Although at my school, you could get one of those jackets all of the male athletes wore. But, alas, the jacket earned me no respect. I’m glad my more traditionally jock-ish granddaughter feels equal to guys who swim and receives tons of accolades. Just wish her dancing cousin was recognized as an athlete as well.

  4. Suzy says:

    Laurie, you do a great job tracing the evolving nature of PE, and make the point that even though it is better now than it was for our generation, it is still very flawed. I remember GAA, but I never would have gone anywhere near it. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was unfair that the girls only had GAA while the boys had actual sports teams, since I wasn’t interested in any of it. I actually did try out for cheerleading every year, but never made the squad because I couldn’t do a decent cartwheel.

    So glad that I never had to climb a rope! I didn’t even know that it was a thing that some people did in PE class until I read today’s stories. That would have been even worse than field hockey, which was the activity that I hated the most. So I am learning that it could have been worse!

    Beautiful picture of your granddaughter! Thanks for sharing 3 generations of your family with us.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Suzy, I didn’t get to play field hockey, which would have been almost as bad for me as climbing that rope. Like you, I tried out for cheerleading, but it was not meant to be. So GAA was at least a way to get exercise and have fun (although at my short height, volleyball was not something I played after high school). My granddaughter in the photo is so fit, but dance is not any more respected for physical fitness than figure skating was for her mother.

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