When I published the infographic ‘Do boys and girls enjoy equal access to play?‘ it generated several comments and queries, many of which will be addressed in upcoming posts and future infographics. However, I wanted to write more about one point that was raised: how play researchers determine whether the children they’re observing are boys or girls.

Before I delve too deeply into this I’d really like to acknowledge the frustration that I share with many people regarding the gender-binary nature of this type of study: everybody is classified as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. I know this is a very narrow and increasingly outdated way of discussing gender and biological sex, leaving no room for intersex children, transgender children, non-binary children, and others. For my study I lacked the capacity or scope to move beyond the binary approach: I was writing an 18,000-word Honours dissertation and not a 100,000-word thesis. I was also reliant upon existing research, all of which uses a gender-binary approach. However, I definitely recognise that there is an entirely unexplored area of work around the play experiences of children who do not identify as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. In fact, there’s a vast amount of scope for research that explores the play experiences of many children who are not well represented by the mainstream – children who are not neurotypical, for example.

My dissertation addresses the challenges of writing in a gender-binary context by attempting to define what I mean when I use the terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. Here’s an extract from my glossary of key terms:

In other words, whenever you see me using the terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ about children not directly related to me, you can assume that it’s shorthand for ‘child presenting as a boy’ and ‘child presenting as a girl’.

My research was underpinned by numerous play studies that explore whether gendered differences exist in children’s play behaviours. Surprisingly, very few of them define what the authors meant by ‘boy’ and ‘girl’, or how they determined whether their study subjects were boys or girls. I decided that I should incorporate into my research methodology some kind of clarification about how I decided whether the children I was observed were boys or girls. This was particularly relevant for my study because I was only observing children in playgrounds – I wasn’t able to confirm their biological sex by speaking to them or their parents.

The one study that helped me to refine my approach was Boyle, Marshall, and Robeson’s 2003 paper Gender at Play: Fourth-Grade Girls and Boys on the Playground, which included discussion about how children’s appearances signal their gender identity. Boyle et al. describe gender as a social construct that is continually reinforced through language, appearance, and behaviour. They refer to children ‘doing gender’ – performing the role of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ – in several ways, including their clothing choices, and refer to specific clothing choices that they relied upon to determine whether the children in their study were boys or girls.

In my study I use the term ‘gender signifiers’. Inspired by Boyle et al., my methodology identifies three main gender signifiers:

  • Clothing style (a lot of girls wear shorts and trousers, but it’s still very unusual to see a boy wearing a dress or a skirt)
  • Clothing colour (girls’ clothing is often pink, purple, yellow, or paler shades of other colours, whereas boys’ clothing is often bright primary colours, or darker shades of navy, grey, and khaki)
  • Hair length (most boys have shorter hair and most girls have longer hair)

My list of gender signifiers is indicative only, and certainly not foolproof, and I anticipated that my observations could include me noting children who were not easy to categorise as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ based solely on appearance – like my son, shown here with his twin sister on their fourth birthday.

However, in practice I didn’t observe any children that seemed difficult to recognise as boys or girls, largely because most children really do present themselves (or are presented by their parents) as very stereotypically boyish or girlish! In the occasional instance where one gender signifier was unexpected – because of hair length, for example – the other signifiers would be very clear: a child might have long hair, but they’d be dressed in stereotypical ‘boy’ clothing. Of course, I may have made some incorrect assumptions, but it felt like I saw virtually no ambiguity.

I suspect that most other studies of gender and play relied heavily on the same gender signifiers I describe in my work. It’s also relevant that a lot of play studies are conducted in school playgrounds, and in many cases (depending on the country in question) school uniforms would have provided researchers with clear cues about the children’s biological sex.

One comment that came up on Facebook was why or whether it’s relevant to think of children’s play in gendered terms in the first place. That’s a question for another infographic!