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The Challenge of Boys in Our Early Childhood Programs
By Francis Wardle, Ph.D.

Boys always seem to be moving! They enjoy the outdoors, love rough-and-tumble play, and make lots of noise. They are spontaneous, impulsive, fun loving and messy. But boys struggle in most early childhood programs. Why? In this article I will try to answer this critically important question.


Goodness-of-fit is a “pattern of smooth interaction between the individual and the social milieu, including family, school and community” (Berger, 2003, p. 206). For children, it’s like a dance between a child’s needs, temperament, behaviors and expectations, and the responses of the human environment. It requires caregivers and teachers who are in tune with the individual child’s idiosyncratic temperament, style, and dispositions. Parents and teachers of slow-to-warm children should give them time to adjust to new situations; those of exuberant, happy, curious children should just make sure they don’t hurt themselves while they explore and take risks (Berger, 2003).


This goodness-of-fit is critical for the full emotional, cognitive, physical, psychological, and moral development of all children. And early childhood programs should try to provide a goodness-of-fit for each child.


The Female Culture of Early Childhood Programs

One of the first issues I faced as a new Head Start director was trying to understand why my teachers argued vigorously when assigning children into their classrooms. They all preferred girls and wanted as few boys as possible. Later, after I discovered three times as many boys as girls in my program were diagnosed with a special need, I conducted an informal survey of my classrooms. What I discovered was that most of my teachers were involved with children in the dramatic play and art areas, or doing tabletop puzzles and reading activities. Few were in the block area or working with children on the floor, and all the new woodwork benches I had recently purchased were being used as teachers’ desks or to support the fish tanks (Wardle, 1991).


In most cultures it is the job of the women to care for young children. In our own culture the mother of the family – and also older female siblings – assumed this role. And, as students of child development know, until very recently almost all research on attachment, stimulation, nurturing, and goodness-of-fit was conducted on mothers (Berger, 2003; Berk, 2002). It was only natural, therefore, for this role to be assumed by women as we moved from caring for children at home, to caring for them in early childhood programs. Our culture still views women as nurturers and the people who are best suited for raising young children. Therefore, it is not surprising that almost all early childhood teachers and caregivers are women. Clearly, the early childhood field reflects a female cultural orientation. However, it should be noted that more males are entering early childhood teacher education programs, and eventually this could change the culture of early childhood classrooms.

Research comparing interactions of mothers and fathers with their children suggests that young children view mothers as providers of basic needs – food, comfort, security, and love; while they view their fathers as providers of fun, excitement, and play (Lamb, 2000; Parke, 1996). Further, compared to mother’s play, father’s play is more noisy, emotional, boisterous, physical, and spontaneous (Berger, 2003). The same research also suggests that all children need both kinds of adult interactions in their lives. But in early childhood programs, our children are only exposed to women’s interaction styles.

The Needs of Boys

Gender differences are biological and not just cultural: the biological foundation for gender differences includes hormonal influences on the brain (Berger, 2003). These differences begin in the fetal stage of development, when the sex hormones begin to influence brain development, which continues to develop throughout childhood. These gender differences in brain maturation produces different overall development, such as the fact that infant girls tend to talk earlier than boys, and their language development continues to be more advanced than boys throughout early childhood (Fenson et al., 1994; Leaper, Anderson and Sanders, 1998).


Anyone who has worked in an early childhood program, or has both boys and girls at home, knows the needs of boys and girls differ widely. Some of the needs of boys, compared to those of girls, include:


Physical Activity. In general, boys are simply more physical than girls. Far more boys engage in rough-and-tumble play than do girls (Humphreys & Smith, 1984). Boys also tend to enjoy physical activities on the playground, which is also cultural, as men in our culture engage in physical sports. While boys’ need for physical activity may be partly due to culture, it is neurological as well. The brains of boys develop slower than those of girls, even before birth (Berger, 2003). Further, on average, boys tend to be more aggressive than girls, a trend that appears in many cultures (Whiting and Edwards, 1988). Not only is this due to brain development, but also due to male sex hormones, androgens (Berk, 2002).


Space. Boys simply take up more space than girls in their daily activities – both indoors and out(Harper and Sanders, 1975). From a teacher’s perspective, they seem to spread out, use the far reaches of the playground, and want to push the limits on field trips. Maybe this is one reason boys love to play and work on the floor.


Kinesthetic Learning. One of Gardner’s eight intelligences is bodily kinesthetic – learning through movement (Gardner, 1983). Bruner talks about three kinds of representations (memory): symbolic (words/numbers), icons (pictures) and enactive representation (muscle memory), and believes young children’s learning is dominated by iconic and enactive representation (1983). Enactive representation is kinesthetic learning. Boys seem to thrive using kinesthetic learning, which fits well with their use of space, need for physical activity, and their aggressive behaviors (Hale-Benson, 1986). They love outdoor projects, gardening, building with units and hollow blocks, field trips, and games.


Hands-on-learning. Boys are more advanced than girls in mathematical reasoning, spatial ability, and mechanical ability, while girls score higher on memory, perceptual accuracy, verbal fluency, and language tasks (Aikens, 1987). All preoperational children (before about age seven) need lots of hands-on-learning (Wardle, 2003); but, because of boys’ abilities in math and mechanical skills, and their limitations in memory and language, they specifically need lots and lots of opportunities for hands-on learning, rather than verbal instruction, literacy activities, and rote learning.


Lots of Play. As I have already mentioned, boys are much more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play than girls. One expert believes this kind of play helps boys overcome their genetic tendency towards hyperactivity and learning disabilities. Rough-and-tumble play helps develop the frontal lobe of the brain, which is used to regulate behavior (Panksepp, 1998). Further, it is believed rough-and-tumble play assists in the development of motor skills, emotional regulation, and interpretation as well (Pellegrini and Smith, 2001), and Sutton-Smith suggests that play is an ideal forum for learning specific social skills (1997). Play is also a good way to increase brain development (synapse and dendrite growth) and increase speed of messages between all parts of the brain and nervous system – which is particularly important for boys (Berger, 2003).


The Differences Between Boys and Girls

In the United States a newborn boy’s odds of dying accidentally before age 15 are about one in 500; for girls it is one in 800 (National Center of Health Statistics, 2000). Generally, male embryos and fetuses are at greater risk than females. In addition, newborn boys have more birth defects, and older boys have more learning disabilities and other problems (Berger, 2003). For example, about four times as many boys as girls are autistic. And, as infant and toddler caregivers will tell you, male toddlers bite more than female toddlers (Gerrard, Leland & Smith, 1988). Further, three to nine times more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD (Berk, 2002).


Any learning disability or other impairment to normal brain growth can jeopardize all development, including academic achievement and social behaviors, because almost all basic skills and accomplishments require the use of many parts of the brain working together (Berger, 2003). Girls are not only more advanced than boys in vocabulary, language, memory and perception, but also in sustained attending and self-control (Cornoyer, Solomon and Trudel, 1998; Rothbart, 1989). Finally, girls prefer dramatic play more than do boys, and tend to engage in fewer aggressive and violent themes in their play (Berger, 2003).


Why Boys Struggle in Our Programs

When I first suggested boys struggle in our programs I was roundly criticized for focusing just on boys, and not on the needs of all young children (Wardle, 1991). Until recently the prevailing view among educators was that our education system – including early childhood programs – favors boys (Sadker and Sadker, 1994). While this may have been true of middle and high school – especially in math and science - it has never been true in early childhood programs. Thus we have been extremely reluctant to recognize a problem exists. Other reasons include:


  • In general, the development of boys’ brains and overall nervous systems is delayed compared to girls (Berk, 2002; Leaper, Anderson & Sanders, 1998). And since the brain affects cognitive development, attention and emotional regulation, this impacts a boy’s overall “school readiness,” including activity, attention span, and academic development.

  • Most early childhood programs emphasize verbal and literacy activities, the arts, and social-dramatic play. Boys prefer rough-and-tumble play, aggressive activities, hands-on manipulation of concrete materials, and lots and lots of movement. Furthermore, boys have less attention and poorer self-regulation than girls.

  • Early childhood programs have a goodness-of-fit between them and girls. Almost all early childhood teachers are women; most women seem to prefer behaviors and activities more often attributed to girls than boys. Many programs notice two things when a male teacher or volunteer is in the classroom: more rough-and-tumble play, more noise and physical activity, and more boys getting involved in activities.

  • Added to this dilemma is that many programs do not have adequate indoor and outdoor facilities for gross motor play. Further, programs like Head Start often spend more resources on computers than on equipment for quality outside play (Wardle, 1999; 2000).

  • We already know that more boys arrive into our programs with more disabilities than girls (Berger, 2003). Further, many boys simply cannot meet the increased expectations of our early childhood programs. These facts lead to more boys than girls being diagnosed with special needs.

Compounding the Problem

The No Child Left Behind Act, along with changes in Head Start Standards, compound the problems for young boys. Head Start is shifting from its original focus on social competence and play to literacy and discrete academic outcomes (Snow, 2003), and many in the early childhood field support standards as a way to improve quality (Kagan & Cohen, 1997).


The problem with standards for a child who struggles to meet these standards is obvious. But one unanswered question is, “standards for whom?” Based on all the available research, especially the new brain research, it seems these standards fit the development of girls better than boys. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act has focused on literacy in early childhood programs. Since girls start talking earlier than boys, and continue to exceed boys in all literacy areas throughout elementary school, this focus clearly favors girls, resulting in more boys being placed in remedial reading programs, and possibly special education placements.


As I have already mentioned, boys need a variety of kinesthetic activities. Yet we are reducing all of these in our early childhood programs, due to increased time and resources for academics, money and time spent on computers, and less time for outdoor play, dance, movement, and other physical activities.


Further, as a result of the Columbine tragedy, many school districts created anti-bullying programs. But, because district policies and definitions regarding bullying are often poorly articulated, it is safe to assume that what little rough-and-tumble-play and aggressive physical interaction still exists in schools will be further discouraged, especially since one of the recommended approaches to stop bullying is to “nip the problem in the bud” (Berger, 2003). Zero tolerance policies will eliminate any rough-and-tumble and other aggressive play from programs, and as our programs stress more and more academic standards and expectations, outdoor play and all forms of aggressive play will almost certainly disappear.



There are a variety of things we need to do to make sure boys have equal opportunity to succeed in our early childhood programs. We must:


  • Reevaluate our focus on standards. First, we need to radically liberalize academic expectations for young children (up to third grade) – essentially going back to a true application of developmentally appropriate practice (Wardle, 1999). Secondly, we need to insist on developing and implementing rigorous standards for physical activity.

  • Increase the presence of men in early childhood classrooms. Through hiring more men, using fathers in the classroom, and attracting male volunteers (seniors, people in service organizations like the scouts, etc), programs can begin to provide more activities and behaviors boys need. However, this approach will be ineffective if an overall passive culture is maintained (an insistence on quiet, no rough-and-tumble play, restrictive outdoor play rules, no messy activities, no indoor gross-motor actives, etc). Men recruited to work in the classroom should be encouraged to develop and engage in these kinds of activities.

  • Train all staff on the unique needs of boys and provide techniques, methods, and approaches to meet these needs. This includes providing lots of physical activities (inside and outside), woodwork, physical games, different science and mechanical projects, and all sorts of hands-on math activities. Training must include instruction in woodwork, math and science projects, and typically ‘male’ experiences, since many women are uncomfortable or unfamiliar engaging in these activities. In my Head Start program we discovered that a full training day of making things out of wood produced wonders for woodwork activities in the classroom (Wardle, 1991).

  • Make the classroom “boy friendly.” For example, provide a regular woodwork station, and completely redo the “housekeeping area,” changing its name to “dramatic play area.” Include a vast array of stereotypical male props: hard hats, brief cases, firefighters’ hoses, police uniforms, professional sports hats and uniforms, tools for fixing cars, tool boxes, etc., (Wardle, 1991). One of my graduate students discovered that adding books about sports and sports heroes, how things work, and buildings and inventions, increased her kindergarten boys’ reading scores.

  • Be extremely cautious when recommending boys for special education services. Remember that in many areas boys are naturally delayed compared to girls.


Boys often struggle to be successful in our early childhood programs. This is no accident. Our programs provide a goodness-of-fit for girls because most caregivers and teachers are women, and the field of early childhood reflects a female culture. This leads to environments, activities, curricular plans, and interactions that tend to match up better to what girls enjoy and are good at doing. But boys have some needs that are distinctly different from girls. If we truly believe in educational equity, we must find ways to help boys be more successful in our programs.

Francis Wardle, Ph.D., teaches for the University of Phoenix (Colorado) and is the executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children. He has just published the book with Marta Cruz-Jansen, Meeting the Needs of Multiethnic and Multiracial Children, available from Allyn & Bacon.


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