The Girls' Play Project

Exploring the gender balance of play space use

Territorialisation — July 21, 2019


I feel like I may have already used the term ‘territorialisation’ a few times in blog posts and Facebook comments, so I thought it would be useful to explain what I mean by it, and why it’s relevant to my research about gender and play.

I learned this term after reading Sarah Thomson’s 2005 paper Territorialising the primary school playground: deconstructing the geography of playtime. I’ve summarised her definition of territorialisation in my image above, but here’s a further explanation:

“One of the first acts of territorialisation occurs when people make judgements about a space and perceive it as significant. In other words, think of it as other than neutral. If this is the case, it then becomes a designated or classified area, cleared and maintained for certain activities, where novel conditions might exist and where certain individuals have free or restricted access.”

Thomson, 2005, p. 64

Thomson makes the point that territorialisation occurs when people think of a space as belonging to a certain group. I think this implies that the attitudes about who has free access to a space are defined more broadly than just by the users themselves. So, it’s not just a case of those users thinking that the space belongs to them – it’s when everybody else thinks it as well, perhaps even without realising it.

The obvious example of interest to me is skate parks, which I contend are territorialised spaces: they’re thought of as spaces where boys and young men practise their skills and spend time with their friends. I am not arguing that the boys themselves actively work to keep out other users – although there are certainly many instances when they do, as this excellent article about Auckland female skateboarder Amber Clyde illustrates – but more that society at large thinks of skate parks as places primarily used by males. This is even acknowledged in some councils’ play strategies, often in the context of recognising a lack of corresponding leisure facilities dominated by girls.

Eleven years before Thomson’s paper was published Barrie Thorne discussed similar concepts in his 1994 book Gender Play. He wrote:

“Boys’ control of space can be seen as a pattern of claimed entitlement, perhaps linked to patterns well documented among adults of the same culture. For example, there is ample evidence, reviewed and analysed by Nancy Henley, that adult men take up more personal and public space than adult women.”

Thorne, 1994, p. 83

Here, Thorne draws a explicit link between boys’ early experience of unchallenged access to play space, and adult men’s later dominance of public spaces in general. As part of my dissertation I reviewed several international studies of school playgrounds (too many to list here, but I can supply the details to anybody who is interested), and it was clear that the way that boys use school play spaces – typically in ball sports that take up a lot of territory – dominates the overall use of the spaces. It was also noteworthy that few researchers identified instances where teachers had attempted to curtail boys’ dominance of school playgrounds. I think this harks back to the ideas I’ve discussed before about boys supposedly ‘needing’ more space to run around (as opposed to passive, inactive girls?).

Seamus Dunn and Valerie Morgan’s 1987 study Nursery and Infant School Play Patterns: Sex-Related Differences mentions that teachers at their study school hadn’t noticed that boys were playing in a disruptive and dominating way until the researchers themselves highlighted it – and apparently the teachers didn’t accept that this was something over which they might have any influence, because they felt that boys were more boisterous by nature. This was within the context of a study of young children in a school context, demonstrating that gendered attitudes about boys’ and girls’ play are reinforced from an early age. If this is a widespread attitude at schools, it is unsurprising that boys may develop an assumption that they have every right to take up space. If nobody tells them that they should make way for others, why would boys worry about this issue?

Other studies of public playgrounds also imply that territorialisation extends beyond skate parks and school playgrounds. In 1993 Gertrud Pfister noted from her observation of two Berlin playgrounds that girls’ games were played in one place or in a small amount of space, but:

“…typically boys’ activities, on the other hand, involve conquering space, either alone or with an object, and accomplishing an aim”

Pfister, 1993, p. 164

More recent studies of public playgrounds also reinforce the sense that boys dominate sports-oriented facilities (relevant studies include Floyd et al. 2011 and Bocarro et al. 2015).

Territorialisation is a problem for two reasons:

  1. It teaches boys to regard public space as their space.
  2. It teaches girls that their right to use public space may be contingent on men making it available for them.

From a spatial perspective we reinforce territorialisation when we continue to build leisure facilities that are only used by boys. What message does this send to girls? Public money is spent on spaces in which they don’t feel welcome – spaces where they may be actively dissuaded from enjoying themselves. At present we don’t make any effort to provide equivalent spaces for girls, which is a point that Sargisson and McLean also make in their 2013 study of New Zealand playgrounds.

The way that boys use skate parks also illustrates territorialisation. My study showed that the few girls who visited skate parks at my study sites would typically do so for a short period only, during which time they’d actually practise their skills. By contrast, boys tended to occupy skate parks for extended periods. Typically one or two boys would skate while the others ‘hung out’. Skate parks are social spaces for boys, but girls do not have access to equivalent public social spaces territorialised by them.

So what can we do about this? I think we need to try some different things. Amber Clyde’s Girls Skate NZ work helps girls to feel confident in skate parks by teaching them to skate there. For my upcoming Masters study I want to contrast the gender balance of use in the skate parks Amber uses with other skate parks where girls’-only classes aren’t held. I also want to test a specific intervention – girls’-only activation events (‘takeover days’ that celebrate female skateboarding at skate parks that typically see a low level of use by girls and women) – to see if asserting girls’ right to use these spaces leads to improved gender balance of their use in the future. I want to see how we can actively challenge and subvert the existing use of skate parks, ensuring that girls who wish to use them can feel confident to do so.

Why can’t kids go out and play? — June 27, 2019

Why can’t kids go out and play?

This week’s infographic draws on a synthesised literature review I produced as part of a study conducted by Patricia Austin, one of my University of Auckland lecturers, in December 2017. Tricia’s study was part of the National Science Challenge (‘NSC11’) ‘Shaping Places: Future Neighbourhoods’ project, and my specific focus area was on children’s access to play in suburban neighbourhoods. As I started my research it rapidly became clear that children’s ‘independent mobility’ – the right to roam; to leave the house without adult supervision – was an integral element that influenced access to play. And as my infographic mentions, there was also a clear difference in boys’ and girls’ independent mobility – and this is what led me to eventually focus on gender and play more broadly. So, though it may seem like this infographic is less about girls and play, and more about access to play, it still contributes to the discussion about the interface between play and gender.

Given the large number of studies I drew on for this work – over 100 published articles – it isn’t feasible to provide individual links to the contributing research, but if independent mobility is an area of particular interest to you please get in touch – I may be able to share my reference pages from the work I produced.

In 2018 I also used my access to play findings to write this article for The Spinoff, rebutting comments made by a New Zealand journalist that modern parents were ‘too soft’ because they wouldn’t let their children travel to school without an adult. If you dislike older men telling the rest of us why we’re terrible parents, you might enjoy it.

(The original infographic I uploaded in this post was replaced with a less colourful version, after some feedback that the subtle colour scheme of the original might be difficult for some visually-impaired people to read.)

Nature, nurture, and play — June 21, 2019

Nature, nurture, and play

Last week I shared an infographic that highlighted the impact of gender stereotyping on boys’ and girls’ play. I thought it might be useful to dig a little deeper into the underlying issue: the way that gender role socialisation influences our children’s development and experiences.

There are two opposing theories to explain why boys and girls tend to behave differently and show different play preferences. These can be described as biological determinism – the ‘nature’ side of the argument – and gender role socialisation – the ‘nurture’ counter-argument.

Biological determinism is the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally different as a result of gender and hormonal differences. Natasha Walter’s excellent book Living Dolls is a rich source of examples of how biological determinism is used to explain behavioural differences observed between males and females. She highlights an increased tendency by mainstream media to use biological determinism as the reason for gender differences, even to the point of amplifying or misconstruing minimal or non-existent data about biological sex differences. Walter interprets this as evidence of a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and pushing back against feminism.

Parents and educators often talk to and about their children in ways that reinforce biological determinism. Comments about how boys need to run around more than girls, or how boys all like to play in rough and tumble ways, portray a belief that boys and girls have fundamentally different attitudes and behaviour. Often it seems that people see how their children and their children’s friends behave, and extrapolate that out to represent all children of that gender – so, their son is very loud, and he tends to attract similarly boisterous friends, and therefore they conclude that all boys are very loud. The researcher Granié also writes about parents correlating a few children’s behaviour with some kind of proof of biological sex differences. Another common example of biological determinism is the belief in young boys having a testosterone surge that explains their restlessness and inability to listen – a theory that I debunked in an article for The Spinoff last year. Personally, I think that ‘all girls are xxx’ and ‘all boys are xxx’ statements represent a really lazy way to think about children – much less trouble than actually bothering to get to know individual children’s tastes and preferences! I challenge them whenever I hear them, and I’d really encourage others to do so as well.

In their book Children’s Play Scarlett, Naudeau, Salonius-Pasternak, and Ponte do suggest that biological factors may have something to do with children’s gender stereotypical play, but they also identify socialisation and television advertising as key influencing factor. Cordelia Fine’s superb (and very readable and often very funny) book Delusions of Gender discusses parents’ inability to recognise how gender role socialisation has been expressed and experienced in their family, which leads them to assume that gendered behaviour seen in their children must be biologically driven. These are the parents who buy their girls nothing but pink clothing and sparkly things, and then talk about how their girls just prefer that stuff because that’s how they are.

The prevalence of gender role socialisation can’t be understated. This BBC video shows how people habitually make assumptions about the type of play children will enjoy, based on their perceived gender. A study of rough and tumble play by Janet DiPetro exposed how boys are subjected to rougher play and physical handling from birth onwards, and how frequently fathers instigate ‘rough and tumble’ play with their sons (and not with their daughters). It’s fairly difficult to see boys’ tendency for physical play as biologically determined in the face of clear evidence that adults inadvertently train their boys to consider it normal.

A really fascinating study conducted by Morrongiello and Dawber in 1999 explored whether parents create an appetite for risky play in their children. They asked parents to teach their toddlers to reach for and slide down a ‘firefighter’ style pole, which is a fairly high risk endeavour when you’re tiny. Their findings show that girls were offered help more frequently, and constantly reminded to be careful, but boys were helped less often, and were even refused help when they asked for it. In light of this, is it any wonder that boys might grow up with a greater appetite for risky play, and greater physical confidence when playing?

Of course, gender role socialisation is also expressed constantly by the toys we buy for our children, and also the clothing we choose for them – and in the case of girls’ clothing, the wardrobe supplied by their parents can actively hinder any aspirations their daughters might have to climb trees or roll down a hill. And it’s definitely reinforced by gendered behaviour that children observe in the adult world – like TV advertising that constantly shows men being active and women being passive.

In summary, there’s not much evidence that children play differently because of fundamental biological sex differences – and a lot of evidence to support the influence of gender role socialisation. It’s important to unpick these attitudes and assumptions because they have such a bearing on whether we should address issues related to access to play spaces.

If we believe that boys are biologically driven to enjoy active play more than girls, we can disregard concerns that girls are disadvantaged through boys’ potential domination of play spaces – we can assume that girls probably wouldn’t want to play actively because it isn’t in their nature. However, if we can agree that the gender differences we see in children’s play are caused by a range of attitudes and behaviours that we pass on to them, there is greater motivation to explore and address whether boys and girls have equal access to play opportunities. We can challenge these attitudes with our own children, and support them to embrace their preferred play styles.

Do girls and boys play differently? — June 15, 2019

Do girls and boys play differently?

The infographic in this post summarises an extract from my dissertation. The following studies were used as source material for my collated list of girls’ and boys’ play preferences.

Research that discuss the social penalties associated with non-gender stereotypical play include Fabes et al.‘s 1997 study, and also Clark and Paechter’s 2007 study ‘Why can’t girls play football?’ Gender dynamics and the playground. Holmes’s 2012 study discusses how children frequently follow the conventions of gendered play. Boyle, Marshall, and Robeson’s 2003 study Gender at Play: Fourth-Grade Girls and Boys on the Playground also touches on this in their discussion of play as part of a social construction of what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Do boys and girls enjoy equal access to play? — June 13, 2019