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How balanced play for boys and girls helps in future | Family Matters

In a previous column, I talked a little about gender differences in language development, and suggested some of these differences might be linked to gender differences in young children's play.

In this column I want to explore gender differences in play a little more.

Children are generally able to identify themselves a boys or girls by age 2 and the messages they have learned about girls and boys influence what their gender identity means to them and how they think they should behave in relation to acting their gender.

In many Australian families, by this age they have clear experiences that lead them to identify appropriate behaviours and play activities for boys and girls.

Stereotypically girls play with dolls and engage in quiet activities, and boys play with trucks, run around a lot and are generally more active.

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Boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play and they tend to need more space to run around and be active.

Unfortunately, girls who are active and engage in rough-and-tumble play are often asked to play quietly, when a similar level of activity in boys is ignored.

By the time they are three children generally prefer to play with peers of the same gender, as these peers play the way they do.

Playing with peers of the other gender can feel uncomfortable because opposite gendered peers play differently.

It is not uncommon to see boys becoming more vigorous in their play when a girl attempts to join the group.

This increased level of activity usually serves to prevent the girl from joining in, and after she has left, the boys' activity level returns to its baseline (which is still generally more active than is girls' play).

It is also not uncommon for girls playing in the home corner to assign the 'daddy' role to boys and shove them out 'to go to work' for the day whilst they look after baby and do the cooking and shopping.

In their play girls are generally more likely to talk with each other than are boys as they negotiate complex scripts defining how they care for baby and how their game will progress.

Some researchers argue that these differences are genetic/biological.

After all, women bear children and generally raise them, so there could well be a biological underpinning that prompts girls to engage in the kinds of play that will prepare them for their future roles as mothers/carers.

It does suggest however, that we ensure that children have opportunities to engage in all different kinds of play, and that we do not limit their play based on their gender

In contrast, boys' rough-and-tumble play is thought to prepare boys to fight in their adult life.

Other researchers argue that these gender differences are socially based. In other words, we shape our children to behave in the ways they do.

When young girls are really active, we encourage them to calm down and play quietly.

When boys are really active, we suggest they go outside and run around where they cannot damage anything.

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We give our young girls dolls, unicorns and frilly tutus. We give our young boys trains, blocks and balls and put them in shorts and tee-shirts.

Some researchers suggest that boys' physically active rough-and-tumble play might serve to desensitise boys towards violence in later life.

Certainly, there is evidence that greater time playing with toys such as guns and swords can lead to increased physical aggression.

A recent study demonstrated that children who engaged in highly active physical and aggressive play, including aggressive rough-and-tumble, in their early years were more physically aggressive by age 13 (this group included both boys and girls so the key element is the type of play not the actual gender of the child).

In contract those children who engaged in quiet, 'feminine-type' play (both boys and girls) in their early years were less physically aggressive by age 13.

This does not mean that we should prevent rough-and-tumble play; to the contrary there is sound research evidence that this kind of play is important in children's development; helping them learn how to manage their bodies and moderate their physicality.

It does suggest however, that we ensure that children have opportunities to engage in all different kinds of play, and that we do not limit their play based on their gender.

Children who are really active can be offered carefully chosen opportunities to enjoy quiet play, whereas children who play quietly a lot of the time can be offered opportunities to be physically active and engage in rough-and-tumble play.

Like many things in life, it's about achieving a balance so our children can all grow up to be the best people possible, rather than adults who have been shaped into a pre-determined mould.

This story How balanced play for boys and girls helps in future | Family Matters first appeared on The Armidale Express.