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.)
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 Genderdiscusses 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.
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!
My name is Jacquelyn Collins and my academic interest lies in gender and play: specifically, whether we provide equal access to public play and leisure spaces for girls and boys, and how we can improve the gender balance of play space use. My interest in this area developed as I completed a BUrbPlan(Hons) through the University of Auckland, which I began shortly after my twins’ first birthday. I graduated in May 2019 (my son and daughter are now six years old).
Through my dissertation research it became clear that very little work has been done to explore the gender balance of public play space use. However, since finishing my dissertation and talking to individuals and groups both online and offline about my research I’ve discovered that, although people may not have previously considered the ideas I’m sharing, this topic resonates with many people. It’s very encouraging to see others beginning to have their own conversations about gender and play, and I’m excited to see what we can all achieve.
This page is a space for me to share relevant thoughts and ideas, drawing both from my Honours dissertation research and subsequent articles and presentations, and from my upcoming Research Masters, beginning in the second half of 2019. If you would like any further information about my work please contact me via the Contact form. You can also follow me on Facebook. I look forward to sharing more details of what I have learned to date, and hearing your views. Thank you for your interest in my research!