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Dr. Vicki Harber says the divergence in physical skills between girls and boys develops largely because of societal expectations that reinforce gender stereotypes.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

One of the big questions around the inactivity crisis is why females are less active than males.

Dr. Dean Kriellaars, professor at the University of Manitoba's College of Rehabilitation Sciences, has found that a huge divergence in skills between boys and girls emerges as early as Grade 4. According to his research, of all the fundamental skills, girls only outperformed boys at skipping.

There is no physiological reason for girls to be less physically skilled than boys. This divide develops largely for reasons that have to do with our society, says Dr. Vicki Harber, professor emeritus in the faculty of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta.

A parent herself, Harber understands the pressures that today's parents are up against. She knows that we all want the best for our children and that we're fighting against gender stereotypes and a culture that loves convenience, two components that conspire to create inactive girls.

Here are her top 10 recommendations for parents who want to raise active daughters:

1. Be clear on your non-negotiables. For most families, these include wearing seat belts, applying sunscreen and regular doctor and dentist checkups. Harber suggests adding physical activity to that list. Non-negotiable doesn't mean kids don't get choices, she's careful to note, or that parents become prescriptive about what their children do. Rather, physical activity and opportunities to be physically active should become part of the family's culture.

2. Be conscious about gender stereotypes. When it comes to physical activity, try to avoid limiting your daughters in ways that you wouldn't limit your sons. Give girls the same opportunities to explore, get dirty, climb and play that you give your boys, and make sure they are dressed comfortably. Skinny jeans or party shoes may look adorable, but they make spontaneous hikes, mud pie-making and tree climbing more difficult.

3. Create a safe play space for toddlers. Little ones who are mobile but not quite stable should be given a large area to play with no sharp edges. Get them out into green space where they can get dirty, and invite other kids to join in. Harber believes we've lost our common sense when it comes to kids and dirt. Letting them explore their capabilities means they might eat a little sand or mud once in a while. No need to panic.

4. Ask questions of the caregivers at your child's daycare or nursery school: Does the group get outside every day? Are there opportunities to be physically active? Does the daycare prioritize and value physical activity the way it does reading and writing?

5. Keep girls and boys together. We're separating them into different teams, leagues and clubs too early. Prior to puberty, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, "research demonstrates that girls who participate with boys in youth sports are more resilient."

6. Give lots of choices. Kids need to feel autonomous to develop independence. Introduce your girls to as many activities as you would your boys.

7. Expose kids to the outdoors. Girls who are comfortable outside will be more likely to remain active outdoors as they become teens and adults. Playing outside, with all its opportunities to climb, balance, jump, throw and run, is a great way to develop physical literacy.

8. Choose activities wisely. While you don't want to force your child to play a sport or participate in an activity if they don't love it, it's also important that they develop a wide range of skills in different environments. Get creative and don't feel boxed in by what other kids might be doing.

9. This isn't about you. "Your kids' accomplishments don't show up on your résumé," Harber says. Make sure that you're supporting your children to develop skills and do what they find fun without it being about you and your happiness.

10. Find active role models to connect with and mentor your kids. An older child can make all the difference to younger ones when they play together and help them develop skills, while also allowing the older child to develop confidence and self-esteem.

There are good reasons to help girls develop physical literacy. Girls who are active teenagers have fewer problems with depression and substance abuse. Active girls have better eating and sleeping habits and have less risk of cancer and heart disease. And active children and teenagers are more socially connected and academically successful than their inactive peers.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Sara Smeaton is a senior contributing editor and social media strategist for Active for Life, a not-for-profit initiative committed to helping parents raise healthy, happy kids who are physically literate. Find Active for Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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