(This article was written by Chris Manville and first appeared in Montessori International Magazine)
It has been widely reported in recent years that girls are outperforming boys in all areas of learning and development by the end of the foundation stage. Whilst I do not intend to address this issue specifically in this article, I do think it is important to consider whether we are doing everything we can to help children fulfil their potential. I believe wholeheartedly in the ideal of equality of opportunity but, as with all aspects of diversity, this does not mean treating everyone in exactly the same way. What is important is to consider the individual needs, interests and learning styles of each unique child and match our provision to them. This is as true for gender as it is for SEN or ethnic diversity. Through out this article I will be drawing distinctions between boys and girls. It is very difficult to do this without being accused of exactly the type of stereotyping that I will be arguing against. I would like to be clear from the start that when I use the terms ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ I am referring to children with the characteristics often associated with each gender, and not to all boys or all girls.
When I began my Montessori training some twenty years ago, I felt very strongly that, as a man working in early years, I had a perfect opportunity to address the stereotypical view that boys are more physical, aggressive and challenging than girls. I was, in the terminology of the day, a ‘new man’ and ‘in touch with my feminine side’. I believed that it was my role to help boys to shake off the constraints of social conditioning by stamping out their ‘boyish’ behaviour and to offer them a model of a more sensitive way of being male. In many ways I still believe this, particularly the last part. But what I have come to realise in the intervening years is that the starting point for achieving this is to accept that boys are boys. Whether this is due to their nature or social conditioning is not important. What is important is to recognise that boys explore and interact with the environment in ways that are different to girls. These differences need to be acknowledged, valued and provided for, to ensure that boys are not switched off from learning before they even enter statutory education.
All too often boys are forced to fit in to an approach to learning that is more suited to girls. Expectations such as sitting quietly on a mat or at a table, communicating verbally, using ‘indoor voices’, and walking when indoors with few opportunities to play outside, are all things that boys find particularly difficult, but are often governed by classroom rules. By contrast, the more physical, exuberant and energetic activities, favoured by boys, often leads to behaviour that is perceived by many practitioners as inappropriate. (Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements, DCSF 2007).
The activities boys choose can be a challenge to many practitioners as they may attract little adult involvement, and are often seen to be of less value than those chosen by girls. However, if we are to truly say that we are following the child, as Montessori said we should, and if we are to plan activities on the basis of observations of children’s interests, as the EYFS advises, then we must learn to value the choices of all children, and look for ways of developing their learning through meaningful, sustained shared thinking based on those interests. Practitioners need to value the noisier, more action based activities of some boys as much as they do to the quieter, more contained play of other children. That is not to say that we should not continue to have ground rules. The consistency and predictability that these provide as limits to the child’s freedom are a vital part of the development of self-discipline. But practitioners need to consider the developmental appropriateness of any rule, and the ability of children to abide by it.
Creating a stimulating outdoor environment that can be accessed at any time (free flow) is one of the best ways of creating a more boy-friendly environment. According to Bilton et al (2005) ‘some boys who are at risk of becoming disaffected at a very young age have shown significant improvements if their learning takes place outside.’ Indeed, many boys show a distinct preference for being outside.
Boys are fascinated by moving things, building things and taking things apart to see how they work. They also enjoy physical challenges and risk. On a recent visit to a nursery in Hampshire I observed a wonderful activity involving breeze blocks and a club hammer! Children were provided with safety gloves and goggles, and were then able to break up the block whilst remaining safe. An additional safety measure was a chalk ‘safety circle’ into which only the rock-breaker was allowed to enter. Interestingly, although this would seem to be a boys’ activity, it was being enjoyed just as much by the girls.
Providing guttering, pipes, funnels, buckets, tubing and hoses together with a supply of water will lead to a wide range of practical life activities, but in a form and on a scale that will inspire and enthuse boys. Setting up a garage role play area, complete with a hose pipe petrol pump and car/bike washing area provides a wonderful extension to indoor polishing activities and will lead to a wealth of role play. Adding wheelbarrows, piles of sand, crates, rope, planks and sheets/tarpaulins offers opportunities for den building and fulfils boys’ need for ‘shifting stuff’. Activities of this sort encourage team work and collaboration, and provide a wealth of opportunities for learning and development across all six areas of the EYFS. In particular, the inclusion of mark making materials to motivate emergent writing will stimulate boys’ interest in early literacy skills in a way that more structured activities often fail to do. For example, providing MOT forms in the garage mentioned above, will give children the opportunity to record faults and work-to-be-done, so stimulating further role play and exploration. Chalks can also be provided for marking out and numbering parking bays for wheeled toys – developing numeracy and providing the impetus for tidying away at the end of the session.
Planning outdoor challenges, such as using available materials to build a bridge, or how to rescue a teddy from a tree, will further encourage the use of problem solving and reasoning skills. The latter is also an excellent way of re-directing superhero play, the perennial challenge for many practitioners! This also raises the question of children using the materials as guns, swords or other weapons. Whilst there is not space to discuss this in any detail here, I would urge all Montessorians to ask themselves whether we are giving boys the same opportunity as girls to be creative and imaginative if we restrict this aspect of their play. (see Engaging Boys in the Early Years by Islington Primary Strategy Early Years Team for some interesting case studies on this topic)
Moving indoors, boys still need space, and yet the layout of many nurseries leaves boys constrained and restricted in their movements. As boys tend to spend much less time than girls engaged in table activities it should be possible to remove some of the tables to provide more floor space. This not only gives children more room to move around but also allows more space for such things as block play and other construction activities: favourites with many boys. Indeed, it is important to allow boys, and girls, the freedom to explore materials in their own original and creative ways, even when this requires a lot of space and challenges our ideas on misuse of the materials. There is a difference between exploring and experimenting with the materials, and treating them in away that is dangerous or damaging. Providing a range of science and technology materials and posing a daily ‘what happens if ……?’ question is another way of meeting the children’s need for challenge, experimentation and exploration.
Boys are also less likely than girls to be drawn towards activities involving fine motor skills. Providing large motor practical life exercises and materials for woodwork are good ways of encouraging boys to participate in more structured, focused activities that allow them to develop their physical, practical and creative skills in a developmentally appropriate way. Buckets and ladles in place of small bowls and spoons create a boy-friendly transferring activity, while a watermelon and golf tees provide a great introduction to hammering! Woodworking skills can be further developed through the use of good quality, real, child-sized tools (see http://mkn.co.uk/toy/build/juniorcarpenter). These need to be introduced gradually and under close supervision. Invest in a bench vice to hold blocks of wood still, goggles and good quality work gloves .Start with large headed nails part-hammered into a piece of wood, or cross headed screws (these are safer than slot head screws) in pre drilled holes. Wood glue can be introduced for fixing pieces together, with scraps of material, plastic lids and other recycled materials added for nailing on. With older children, saws and chisels can be added, but again this needs close supervision and appropriate risk assessment.
An alternative approach is to ask parents for any unwanted flat pack furniture. Children (and staff!) will have hours of fun working out how to put it together in different ways, and in doing so will be developing a wide range of practical, social and creative skills.
It is also important to consider the structure of other group activities to ensure they reflect the learning styles and developmental needs of boys. Circle Time is a case in point. Can we really expect boys who have an excess of pent up energy to sit still when they are itching to get outside and build that den they have been thinking about all morning? I do not go along with hose who say they need to practice sitting still because ‘they will need to when they go to big school.’ They are not at big school; they are in nursery and we should be concentrating on their current needs, not their future ones.
Recently I spoke to a Montessori Head Teacher who told me that the boys in her school rarely chose to join in with music sessions. She asked the boys what songs they liked to sing and as a result the structure of the sessions was changed to include more upbeat, whole body action songs and other movement activities, often with props. These changes had had a dramatic effect and now almost all the boys join in with every session.
By creating activities that appeal to the particular needs of boys, practitioners will actually be providing opportunities for all children to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and abilities in new and exciting ways. We will also be recognizing the unique individuality of every child. It is no longer enough to say that we encourage all children to participate in every activity; we must take every child’s needs and interests into consideration when planning those activities.
Bilton, H et al. (2005), Learning Outdoors: improving the quality of children’s play outdoors, (David Fulton)
DCSF (2007), Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements, (DCSF)
DCSF (2009), The Early Years Foundation Stage, (DCSF)
Smith, T. (2008), Engaging Boys in the Early Years Islington Primary Strategy Early Years Team (www.islington.gov.uk/earlyyears)