What Girls Are Looking For In A PE Class

What Girls Are Looking for In a PE Class

Adolescent girls are a diverse and complex group, but what they are looking for in PE is fairly similar regardless of age or location.  This post will expand on the information in the previous post – “Why Girls PE?”


The most important thing that females are looking for in a PE class is to have fun. One student wrote “I get a better mark because I try harder and I actually want to get to my PE class cause it is fun.”  Another said “I look forward to coming to womans PE every day.  It`s fun and you get to do lots of new things.  It always puts me in a good mood.”  Sticking to the points that follow will help with this – a safe and positive environment, trying new things, playing unique games, and participating with friends, etc.  Physical activity can also be planned so that participants do not see it as sport or exercise.  An example of this is designing an “Amazing Race” course.  Students are busy running around and completing tasks, but most of them view it as a game, and not exercise.  You should see the sweat though – much more than when they did “the run” in other classes.  The key is to keep things novel, a bit silly sometimes (two songs from Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” for warm-up for example), and positive.  We have a sticker chart that earns students a prize at the end of each term – they will do anything for a sticker!  Be creative – they usually eat it up!


Learning environment has as much of an impact on student experience as the activity they are participating in.  The need for a safe and caring atmosphere also allows female students to feel comfortable, included, and more able to participate.  Having students learn about self and others, community building in the classroom, emphasizing fair play and social responsibility, and reducing comparisons and situations that could lead to potential embarrassment can all help develop a positive environment.  Cooperative and/or team-building activities, game-creation activities, and peer teaching are all great ways to build a positive environment.

Taking the time to make students feel special or appreciated is another great way to ensure that they are enjoying the course.  I do this by acknowledging birthdays, giving out awards (attendance, improvement, grades, athletic achievement, etc.), using the sticker chart, etc.  I also have students fill out a “Get to Know Form” during the first day of class.  I try to read over them that day and then go for a walk next class in which I walk with each student and go over what I read.  Simple things, such as exposing students to new activities, getting class t-shirts, having a class Facebook or Instagram page, using community facilities, and allowing them a longer time to change after class, makes students feel privileged and as though they are in an exclusive class.

Students also seem to respond to knowing what to expect.  Each week I post the plan for the week on our class Facebook page as well as beside the PE office.  This way students know what they are doing all week, feel more prepared, can ask questions beforehand, and get excited for what’s to come.

One student wrote that “I have noticed that more girls are willing to participate, try new things and push themselves.  I believe this is because most everyone feels comfortable around each other in this class.  A big thing I have noticed is that in WPE the girls are not afraid to sweat and looks are no longer as important.”


One of the biggest complaints about traditional PE is that it is boring and repetitive.  As one student in my class put it, “It’s the same thing every year!  Up until women’s PE, I hated PE.”  Another student said “In women’s PE we learn lots about health and fitness in a way that makes us WANT to participate.  Also in traditional PE, I felt that it was more uncomfortable and boring.  We’d do the same thing for 2 or 3 weeks and it was sports orientated and aimed towards guys.  It got boring and then you didn’t feel like participating.”  I try to introduce students to as many different activities as possible and usually don’t repeat an activity for at least a month.

Variety often increases the chance that students will find at least one activity that they are good at or enjoy.  It also makes participating in something that you are not thrilled with not as bad, because you know that it will only be one class.


Countless investigations support the discomfort many adolescent girls experience with traditional sports, and they suggest emphasizing lifelong and alternative activities instead.  Competition, fitness testing, and PE models based on the European, middle-class, male model are not conducive to a positive PE experience for most adolescent females.  Individual activities such as yoga, dance, and gymnastics, outdoor adventure activities such as hiking and rock climbing, and recreational activities such as bowling and squash are often quite popular with girls. The odd flag football or basketball class can be a lot of fun though, as students feel as though they can get more involved and try when it’s just females playing.

Students should be introduced to new and non-traditional activities, and teachers should take advantage of local facilities, the natural environment in your area, and community members.  The idea of introducing a wide variety of activities, as well as activities that all students have little experience with facilitates student excitement, as well as equals the playing field.  It also increases the chance that they will be comfortable participating in those activities outside of the classroom and find at least one activity that they can continue participating in after graduation.

Kickboxing at West Coast Combat Sports


Students love variety and new activities, and field trips are often the highlight of their school year.  We do not have much of a budget, but most businesses are happy to give us a deal or promotion because they are passionate about what they do and/or they want the girls to tell their friends and families about them.  We have done everything from Tai Chi, to Zumba, to zip-lining, to having a “spa day” where various health and wellness practitioners offer 20 minute services.  I also believe that it is important to be involved in the community, so we teach yoga to kids at elementary school, volunteer maintenance at lawn bowling, do trail maintenance, etc.


Many studies support the link between choice, needs being met, and reciprocal communication with instructors and increased enjoyment and motivation in physical education class.   Teachers can incorporate choice into their class by allowing students to choose what music they would like to listen to, surveying students on what activities they are interested in, allowing a choice within a movement category (ex. badminton or tennis), or by having students fill out a course evaluation or feedback form.

Providing students with choice not only allows them to participate in activities that they are interested in, but it also contributes to increased meaning, ownership over their learning, and a chance to develop decision-making skills for adulthood.  Personalizing the curriculum and placing an emphasis on personal goals can also be motivating.

In our class we vote on activities/wellness topics on the first day of class, I have students fill out a “Get to Know” form, and then we do check-ins at the end of the term (class discussion or feedback form), and then another check-in at the end of the year (so that I can make any necessary changes for the following year).  Sometimes I will also post a poll on our Facebook page asking for input into the next week’s activities.  The girls really enjoy having a say in what we do.


I have found that it is important to find the right balance when challenging students physically.  Most of the girls actually want to improve their fitness levels, but they are not into working out hard every day.  I usually aim for two good workouts each week.  We also focus on working out because we love our bodies, and not because we hate them.  I don’t talk about “bikini season” or anything like that, rather just explaining the physical and mental health benefits of each activity; which actually really helps with student effort.

As one student in my class said, “Women’s PE is more fun, it feels like I’m actually getting in better shape, and I don’t feel like people are as judgemental.” Another said “I like how we learn a lot about nutrition and fitness.  I feel that since I’ve taken this class I want to be healthier and more active.  I also enjoy doing things like pilates and yogas, zumba, etc.  I feel like I really want to try and be healthier.  It’s an inspirational and great place to be.”


Most literature on PE programs with a high rate of female enrollment include a “girl-friendly” or “girl-centred” approach.  Most of these programs are female only or offer gender separation opportunities.  This allows female students to feel comfortable, feel as though they are a part of a community, and allow them to participate in activities that are meaningful to them.

I have also found that girls are much more engaged in our wellness units because they are interested in women’s health topics and comfortable discussing and asking questions about the issues.  Below are some quotes from Women’s PE students in my class:

“…I like being in a more comfortable place with just girls, I feel like I try harder when I’m not in class with guys.”

“… nice to not have to worry about the male gender and just focus on what I was doing.”

“I don’t enjoy PE mix gender classes.  There is no teamwork and nobody supports each other.”

“Regular PE classes are more competitive than women’s PE classes and more judging goes around I think.  There’s also boys which can put stress on some girls.”

“It’s all girls, no boys.  Less embarrasment if I suck at something.”


The development of leadership and social skills is one of the main learning outcomes in PE class, and students view it as a very important component of the course as well.  Working in groups, participating in cooperative games, and including team-building activities in the curriculum helps to establish a safe and fun community.  Getting students to cultivate a sense of social attachment to their PE class is very important as it motivates them and increases the chance of their success.  Studies have shown that there is a direct link between the ability to make friends, having friends, and physical activity.  Teachers should therefore emphasize building social networks among youth to promote physical health and increase self-esteem and self-confidence.  Participating in physical activity with friends has proven to be beneficial and motivational in several studies, and girls have expressed that they want to feel as though they are coming together with peers and building new friendships.

Our class emphasizes the “sisterhood” in which we look out for each other and build each other up, not down.  We celebrate each other’s accomplishments, respect our differences, and don’t compare ourselves.


Students should be provided with regular evaluation that promotes learning and shows learners their strengths, instead of judging them on a final basis.  Emphasizing participation, effort and improvement instead of skill, limits alienation, improves participation, and increases success, enjoyment, fair play, and self-fulfillment.

The amount of feedback and encouragement that a teacher can provide to females has been found to be higher in a single gender class than a coeducational class.  Furthermore, greater teacher-student verbal interaction has also been found to significantly increase moderate to vigorous activity levels, as well as provide motivation for general increases in participation.

Teachers should also use a variety of teaching styles, provide students opportunities for peer teaching, allow for student self-assessment, and ensure that students know what is expected of them and how they will be assessed.  Seventy percent of my Women’s PE class mark is based on participation and thirty percent is from assignments.  Students know what it takes to get a 10/10 participation mark for the day and there is constant feedback about what is going well and what needs to be improved.


Presenting material that is interesting and of personal value to students increases intrinsic motivation and allows for more meaningful learning.  Many females feel as though traditional PE activities have little relevance to their present or future lifestyles.  It is therefore important to teach skills and behaviours that students find meaningful and to instill the value of physical activity that will allow students to sustain it.  Teachers and students have a choice on how they meet the prescribed learning outcomes, and it is important that teachers use this flexibility to meet the needs of their students in order to establish a positive and relevant curriculum.

Once girls realize that the class is making them feel more energetic, happier, confident, and healthier in both body and mind, they will be more likely to buy into the course, as well as continue their healthy lifestyle choices when the course is completed. One student wrote “Womans PE focuses more on things we will actually use in life and skills that are more relevant.”  Another said “It is fun, and laid-back.  We work hard but enjoy it and eachothers company and we do things that actually benefit us.”


It is essential that administrators make timetabling a priority.  Female students have expressed the importance of having PE during the last block, so that they are not sweaty and uncomfortable in the classes following PE.  Our school has a rotation, so when class is after lunch we do something that isn’t very sweaty – wellness lesson, pilates, cooperative games, etc.; and then we do sweaty/wet activities such as boot camp and water aerobics on days when class is last block.  Principals should also ensure that they do not schedule PE in the same block as classes with limited blocks (ex. Calculus 12), as students may have to choose the academic class for prerequisite reasons.


Providing students with opportunities to gain certifications or participate in special events is a big draw for many programs.  Certifications such as first aid or fitness leadership not only benefit students now, but also help them gain valuable skills for the future.  Teachers should emphasize everything that students gain from the class, whether it be a certificate, a free workout at a local fitness facility, or job opportunities through class networking.


Some students are overwhelmed with academics and need a class to blow off stress.  I emphasize that physical activity improves concentration, memory, grades, etc; so students are actually helping academics by participating in this class.  I also make sure that I give ample time for assignments so that I am not adding to students’ homework load.


Female students thrive in environments that provide optimal challenge and allow for mastery of a skill or idea.  Girls prefer and are more intrinsically motivated in activities in which they believe they are competent.  Studies have shown that females enjoy classes that aren’t too easy or too hard, but that challenge them and make them feel as though they have accomplished something.

Many females also express the importance of sufficient practice time, teaching strategies that include progressions, and interesting practice tasks.  Engaged skill learning time, time on task, student-initiated interactions, positive teacher-initiated verbal interaction, and opportunity to participate were all found to be significantly higher in single gender PE classes.  There was also significantly less time spent on class management in the single-sex classes.  This in turn, leads to more effective teaching that will aid girls in mastering skills, tactics, and information, which can allow them to feel confident and successful.


The importance of instructor personality, training and qualification, enthusiasm, efficacy, skill, relatability, understanding, and compassion have been demonstrated in several studies.  Girls enjoy having a teacher that goes out of their way to make the class fun or make them feel special.  Teachers’ expectations have also been found to affect girls’ attitude and participation in PE.  Teacher role-modeling and participation, as well as showing a vulnerable side (allowing students to see that the teacher is not skilled in every activity) make the instructor more credible and relatable.  Having a female teacher that young girls can look up to also increases enjoyment and motivation.

Teachers should continue to expand their knowledge by attending professional development courses, as well as extra-curricular courses when possible.  You also always have to be on the lookout for the new fitness fad or activities in your community.

 If you would like to read the entire thesis paper, please click on the link:

Karli Van Vliet Thesis