Gender & Physical Literacy

Understanding the gender gap in physical literacy

What is this study about?

The decline in physical activity observed in children and youth through the adolescent period is troubling and alarmingly girls are at greater risk for withdrawing from sport and physical activity than boys. Physical literacy – defined as the competence, confidence, motivation, positive affect, and knowledge to be physically active – is a gateway to greater participation in physical activity. Differences in physical literacy may be one reason why girls participate in less physical activity than boys.

What did we find?

From February 2016 to June 2017, we conducted this three phase study. The main results are as follows:

  • Our baseline testing confirmed that boys and girls differed in several domains of motor competence, with girls performing less proficiently at object control skills when compared to boys.
  • Focus group results revealed that:
    • Overall, girls expressed less confidence in their physical skills;
    • Girls preferred games (tag) to organized sport;
    • Girls expressed that the ways boys reacted to them influenced their perceptions of confidence and enjoyment, and that boys tended to dominate in sport; and
    • All children, but especially girls, noted a preference for one-on-one instruction (from leaders and peers) when learning new skills or skills they felt they were not proficient at executing.
  • Using this information and consultation with the gender inclusivity literature, we modified existing resources developed by OPHEA to create Making Movement Matter to address the gender gap observed in motor competence.
    • We found that a single training workshop increased the knowledge, outcome expectations, self-efficacy, and intentions of the afterschool program leaders to deliver Making Movement Matter;
    • At the onset of the intervention, boys outperformed the girls in their movement skill and reported higher self-efficacy to engage in physical activities;
    • Our results show that the intervention did not lead to improvements in either physical competence (PlayFUN) or motivations (perceived self-efficacy).


What does this mean?

This is the first and most comprehensive physical literacy-based intervention that assessed physical literacy as a complete construct and, importantly, was grounded in several previously established behaviour change and movement skill training techniques. Our study confirmed concerns that girls are disadvantaged relative to boys on motor competence and motivation toward physical activity. By introducing sensitivity to gender differences and modifying physical activity curricula to be more gender inclusive, this gender gap may be reduced. While our results failed to find a significant effect for our intervention, variability in program delivery and capacity, logistical challenges in site recruitment, attrition and sampling issues limits our ability to make definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the program. Greater intensity and investment in the afterschool program space is required, given the demands and challenges of working in this environment. Next steps should include a modified intervention delivery based on our learnings from this evaluation to address these challenges.  



Cairney, J., Veldhuizen, S., Graham, J. D., Rodriguez, C., Bedard, C., Bremer, E., & Kriellaars, D. (2017). A Construct Validation Study of PLAYfun. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001494